In the Weeds – Meaning, Origin and Synonyms

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

In the weeds is an idiomatic phrase in English, suggesting one is feeling lost, frustrated, or very focused on current problems, work, or personal life. Idioms like this are figurative expressions where the actual meaning isn’t the same as the literal meaning of the words. They can be confusing to anyone new to the English language, but familiarizing yourself with them can enrich your speech and writing.

Although its origins are not well documented, it is believed to have derived from the Caribbean island rice and sugar cane fields following British colonialism. It is said that escaped slaves would hide in the weeds. The expression likely became popular again during the American prohibition era when bootleg liquor would be hidden in the weeds during transportation from one area to the next.

Take a closer look below at the meaning and use behind this idiom, and review the examples to help elevate your own materials.

In the Weeds – Meaning Origin Synonyms

In the weeds is an idiomatic phrase with different meanings but is synonymous with either being overwhelmed or intensely focused on a current problem or situation.

Both suggest being lost in or entangled with the issue due to the imagery offered by the words. 


In The Weeds English
In the weeds usage trend.

Since the exact origin of the phrase cannot be attributed to any one group or publication, it is widely accepted that it came into use during the European colonization of Caribbean islands who also brought with them the slave trade.

The cultivation of rice and sugar required many hands to rid the area of weeds for planting, and it is possible the term came about to describe the escape of slaves through the deep weeds when they were blocked from view. 

It became popular again during Prohibition in the 1920s, possibly describing the hiding of bootleg liquor in thick weeds and bushes since storing on the premises was a liability and illegal. 

In the weeds American English
American English in the weeds usage trend.

The term has stayed much more consistently popular in British English usage through the years, supporting the theory that it did begin on English colonized land and plantations, and then spread through the American colonies through the years. 

Today, it is often used to explain the frustration of a problem or societal issue that has become “too much” to an individual or group.

It can also be used to describe being deep or too far in the weeds while attempting to root out details of an issue in order to come to a solution. In this scenario, the information is usually meaningless, and one has become entangled too deeply in the “weeds”. 

It has also influenced variances in use and word substitution. 

In the Weeds Synonyms and Substitutions

The most accepted synonym is to be experiencing difficulties. But idiomatic variances such as in a pickle, in a sticky situation, lost in a jungle, up a creek, on a slippery slope, or on rocky ground all suggest the same and may be influenced by the term in the weeds. 

In the weeds, also occasionally may be used with word additions to create a more detailed application. For example, lost in the weeds or stuck in the weeds is also commonly heard. 

Examples Of In The Weeds Being Used In A Sentence

“You can get lost in the weeds right after a big album, a big major release, in a singing competition,” said Hicks, 43. (The Union Leader)

It might seem academic to political scientists who can get lost in the weeds of the swampy morass of state governance, but it is a crucial consideration that weighs on the minds of everyone who thinks going to the polls will bring about results. (The Insider)

Let’s Review

In the weeds is a well-known term that has given rise to many variations, all of which suggest the same thing: being stuck or frustrated in a situation that is hard to get out of.

It also can be used to describe a person wasting their time with too much detail in their attempts to solve this situation.