Column: Getting out of the woods when in the weeds


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

I’ve been getting into native perennial gardening this year. Of all the plants I’m growing, I love milkweed the most. Seventy-three species of native milkweeds grow in the United States, and these plants are the exclusive host plants for monarch butterflies. When people hear “milkweed,” they think of something ugly and undesirable. In an effort to rebrand milkweed, I think we should start calling it “butterfly happy plant.” It could work!

I apologize for getting in the weeds about milkweed. This brings me to discussing and distinguishing a pair of flora phrases, “in the weeds” and “in the woods.” Let’s take a quick hike down a linguistic path to better understand these expressions.

Let’s get into the weeds. This term has multiple applications and definitions. First, a golf shot can land in the rough, which is tall grass or weeds, as opposed to on the shorter grass of the fairway or green. Being in the weeds is a precarious position for your golf ball and can lead to killer divots.

If you’ve ever worked in the restaurant industry, you know that “into the weeds” means that the kitchen and wait staff are busy to the point of total disorder. Being “in the weeds” happens when a server has too many tables to handle or if several patrons order entrees at the same time, leading to a backlog in the kitchen.

Political policy wonks love to get into their version of “the weeds.” In this case, getting “into the weeds” means going into unnecessary detail about a policy or initiative. My opening paragraph is an example of getting “in the weeds” about milkweed. Don’t ever ask a triathlete about how his last race went, because he’ll get into the weeds about every agonizing detail of his recent competition.

Being “in the woods” means something altogether different. When someone “isn’t out of the woods yet,” it can mean that she is quite ill and hasn’t gotten better yet. By this logic, being “in the woods” means someone is on death’s door or incredibly sick. Getting “out of the woods” can also mean a person is trying to come out of a difficult situation. You might hear a person who lands a good job after being unemployed say, “I finally got out of the woods with this new job.”

In general, being in the woods or in the weeds are negative situations, unless you’re a nerdy type who, say, reads an entire column on parsing out two similar-sounding phrases.