In the weeds is an idiomatic phrase with several separate meanings, depending on the context.
The most common application of the phrase occurs in relation to being preoccupied, with the popular example of a waitress having to serve too many guests at the same time.
Alternatively, “in the weeds” may also refer to a scientist or a researcher being lost in a myriad of trivial details.
In both cases, the idiom uses the imagery of a lush weedy pit, where one can easily get entangled and lost.
The exact origin of “in the weeds” is debated, with several various claims being brought up by many.
One popular hypothesis claims that “in the weeds” can be traced back to the colonial era, when slaves were used for the unpleasant and difficult work of de-weeding rice fields, resulting in them often fleeing their slavers.
This is supported by the fact that the phrase “in the weeds” was documented as far back as the 1600’s.
Another popular claim states that “in the weeds” comes from the prohibition era, when underground pubs and speakeasys couldn’t afford to store alcohol in their reserves due to frequent raids.
Due to this fact, illegal pubs often stored their booze in nearby bushy areas, where the owner would take a trip every once in a while, to bring back more liquor for customers.
When customers would ask where the bartender is, the answer would often be “in the weeds”.
Following the end of prohibition, the expression would start seeing further use in relation to being overwhelmed.
Today, “in the weeds” appears in all the different circumstances, from restaurants, to research.
The phrase was first defined on Urban Dictionary in 2005.