Q: On two recent dates, talking heads on TV news spoke of individuals being “in the weeds” in the context of being deeply in the know about a particular issue. I had never heard this usage before. Is this new? Or am I just behind?
A: People tramping through the brush have literally been “in the weeds” since Anglo-Saxon times, when “weed” was wéod in Old English. But as far as we can tell, English speakers didn’t begin using “in the weeds” figuratively until the mid-20th century, when it acquired the slang sense of being in the suburbs or outskirts of a town.
Since then, “in the weeds” has taken on several other slang, colloquial, or informal senses. It can mean being in a safe or secluded place, flying at a low altitude or under the radar, being overwhelmed by work, and being engaged in (or bogged down by) the intricate details of an issue. We suspect that the talking heads you heard were using it to describe experts or detail-oriented people.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang has the earliest example we’ve seen for “in the weeds” used figuratively (in the suburbs or outskirts): “Then we would pick up the tail of one of them until they got out in the weeds at the edge of town somewheres” (from Rap Sheet: My Life Story, 1955, by Blackie Audett, aka James Henry Audett).
The expression soon took on the slang sense of a safe or secure place, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED’s first example quotes Fred Taylor, the Ohio State men’s basketball coach: “We probably took some of them by surprise last year … but everybody is going to be hiding in the weeds looking for us this year” (from the Chicago Daily Defender, Nov. 23, 1960).
Then in US Air Force slang, “in the weeds” came to mean flying at a very low level. The earliest OED citation is from F4 Phantom: A Pilot’s Story (1979), by Robert Prest:
“I counter roll and push downwards, seeking to gain the energy that I need to smoke away into the distance down in the ‘weeds’ at zero feet or thereabouts, where his pulse radar will be unable to pick me up.”
A couple of years later the expression took on the colloquial sense of “a cook, waiter, bartender, etc.: overwhelmed with orders or work,” according to the dictionary. Its earliest example is from an On Language column by William Safire in the New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1981):
“A busy bartender is said to be buried or in the weeds.” The dictionary says this sense is also found “in extended use”—that is, in reference to overworked people in other jobs.
The usage you’re asking about came along a decade later. Oxford defines it this way: “at the most basic or grass-roots level; engaged with intricate or precise details, esp. to an extent considered distracting or limiting.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Journal of Commerce (March 4, 1993): “One White House official at first dismissed questions about the Ex-Im Bank plan as ‘too far down in the weeds for me.’ ”
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, doesn’t label the usage, but Cambridge Dictionary online, the only standard dictionary we’ve seen with an entry for “in the weeds,” considers the detail sense of the expression “US informal.”
Finally, here’s an example from the New York Times on April 4, 2019, about two of President Trump’s choices for the Federal Reserve Board:
“While the institution has strongly rooted values around technical competence and apolitical debate, Mr. Trump’s latest choices have been political actors rather than in-the-weeds experts in any of the main areas in which the Fed makes policy.” (The two men withdrew their names from consideration.)