Going deep into the weeds

It's an idiom that means one thing for waiters and another thing for wonks.

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"Call me if you get really overwhelmed," I recall one of my editors saying not long ago, as we discussed a project with a tight schedule. "Let me know if you end up 'in the weeds,' as they say."

Do they indeed say that? I suppose they do. And now that I've heard it once, I've been hearing it everywhere.

In the weeds is restaurant slang used to describe a server who is hopelessly behind.

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An online glossary of restaurant terms puts it like this: "A colloquial expression used when persons are near or beyond their capacity to handle a situation or cannot catch up. Struggling. Very busy."

It's curious that an outdoorsy image should be so closely associated with a line of work that is done mostly inside.

But no doubt about it, in the weeds is restaurant lingo. It's the name of a blog devoted to issues of restaurant service.

One recent post was a cautionary tale on the topic of "missing sides": "I know it happens where I work a lot. Sides are missing.... If you order extra grilled onions or mushrooms, or an extra side, for some reason, it does not make it. It should not happen, but it does. Be prepared that it could happen to you!"

"In the Weeds" was also the title of a 2000 flick starring Joshua Leonard and Molly Ringwald. It has been characterized by a reviewer on the Internet Movie Database as a "medium rare" restaurant flick – by which he obviously meant, not well done.

It's understandable why the phrase in the weeds should mean "lost." What's less easy to see is why it refers so specifically to a restaurant.

Wikipedia says in its discussion of diner slang: "Refers back to chefs' military roots, where being in the weeds would cause your army to be slaughtered." I'm not sure this is convincing; the unnecessary "refer back" doesn't help make the case either.

In the weeds is often used literally to refer to stray golf balls and such. And the phrase is used in other contexts to mean "in great, even excessive, detail."

Writing in a blog called Language Log, Mark Liberman gives a number of examples from the world of politics – "deep in the weeds" of this or that scandal. He notes that for policy wonks, being in these weeds is a good thing. The weeds a harried waiter is in are not good at all.

"There are many different sorts of reasons why someone could wind up 'in the weeds' as well as different evaluations (perhaps by different people) of the costs and benefits of being there," Liberman writes. "These distinctions start out as inevitable parts of the story we can make up for ourselves around the concept 'in the weeds' – but as some particular patterns of use become common, certain sets of story lines congeal into 'senses.' "

Out of pocket comes to mind as an example of another phrase with very different meanings running in parallel.

One is out of pocket after a given expense, often a fruitless one: "I'm $200 out of pocket and still haven't gotten my computer to work."

But when I learned out of pocket during my stint in the Monitor's international news department back in the days before cellphones, we used it to mean out of touch or unavailable. Correspondents planning to be out when editors would be working on their stories would wire that they would be "out of pocket between 12 and 2" and sometimes give a phone number at which they might possibly be reached.

I once needed to track down a colleague at a spiffy restaurant. The maitre d' was willing to look for him discreetly among the diners but not to call out his name; it wasn't that kind of place. Remembering this correspondent's personal dress code, I suddenly thought to say, "Look around for a man without a necktie. He's our guy."

The maitre d' had him on the line for me within seconds.

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