There be snakes.
Dear Word Detective: The phrase “getting into the weeds” is widely used to mean “getting into the details,” often with the inference of getting into too much detail. I have a guess about the origin of this phrase which is that it comes from harvesting. If you’re “getting into the weeds” your machine or tool is going closer to the ground than necessary to get most of the grain and is picking up weeds along with the crop. But I haven’t been able to confirm this notion or find any other ideas about the origin of the phrase. — Lynda.
At last, a question I feel uniquely geographically qualified to answer, living, as we do, surrounded by soybean, corn and wheat fields stretching to the horizon. And the answer is: What weeds? Maybe you haven’t kept up with modern agriculture, but farmers today spray such a potent cocktail of pesticides and herbicides on their “Roundup Ready” genetically-modified crops that the only “weeds” in those fields (mostly in corn fields, for obvious reasons) were planted on purpose by guys with ponytails who like to work at night.
So I doubt that farming is the source of “getting into the weeds,” especially given that the saying has really only become popular in the last six or seven years. If the phrase had come from agriculture, it almost certainly would have appeared long ago. But “into the weeds” now seems to be very, very popular, to the point where it earned its own article in the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. That article, in turn, heavily relied on an immensely helpful 2006 post on the excellent linguistics blog Language Log by Mark Liberman, who did some solid research on the phrase.
There seem to be two different uses of “getting into the weeds” out there in the wild. One is the “getting into too much (possibly irrelevant) detail” sense that you mention. This is evidently a very popular figure of speech among policy wonks, beltway insiders in Washington, D.C., and savvy observers such as Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall, who has frequently used the phrase in his articles. The other sense is a restaurant term invoked when the staff is overworked, everything is going wrong, and total chaos is only a burnt fillet of sole away. Back in 2000 there was actually a Molly Ringwald movie about the staff of a restaurant dealing with a bad night called “In the Weeds.”
My initial suspicion about “into the weeds” was that it had something to do with a golf ball landing in the “rough” (long grass), making it hard to extract without falling behind. I tend to think that golf is indeed the source of this sense of “getting into the weeds” meaning “losing control and being overwhelmed.” Other possible sources that have been suggested include a swimmer becoming tangled in seaweed and a boat having its propeller snarled by weeds in a lake.
But as Mark Liberman points out, the use of “into the weeds” to mean “delving deep into the details” doesn’t carry the same sense of painful confusion as the restaurant use, and such “weed wandering” is actually the sort of thing true policy wonks enjoy. As he says in his Language Log post, “The metaphor here seems to be that when you wander off the beaten path, you can explore arbitrary amounts of not-very-valuable intellectual foliage (“weeds”) without getting closer to your conceptual destination.” I think that image of “wandering off the beaten path to examine interesting details along the way” is the key to this sense of “getting into the weeds.”
Of course, some tasks actually require “getting into the weeds,” dealing with small but important details, such as the minutiae of financial or legislative analysis (“A panel of lawmakers is starting to ‘get into the weeds,’ as one state senator put it, and are hoping to write first drafts of possible new laws by the end of the summer addressing Montana’s wide-open medical marijuana scene,” Missoulian, 6/28/10). This sense of “getting into the weeds” would thus lie midway between the terror of a bad night as a waiter and the policy wonk’s eager embrace of statistical trends. Sometimes wandering around in the weeds is just all in a day’s work.