The Grammarphobia Blog

Drill instructor

Q: In a recent appearance on WNYC, you said the expression “drill down” meant something like “getting at an idea.” In our firm, it means going beyond general concepts or elements into a more detailed analysis, which I guess leads to getting at an idea.

A: The meaning at your firm is similar to this definition on Webopedia, an online dictionary of computer-technology terms: “to move from summary information to detailed data by focusing in on something.”

I couldn’t find the verb phrase “drill down” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), or any of the other references that I regularly consult.

I also checked out the Oxford English Dictionary to see if the verb “drill” has ever been used this way before. The closest example I could find was a 19th-century meaning: “to order or regulate exactly.” The OED gives an 1877 citation about the necessity to “regulate and drill all the doings of nature.”

Close, perhaps, but no cigar!

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