“Go to Ground”

The New York Times’ redoubtable media columnist, David Carr, has provided material for this blog before, and he does so again in today’s paper. Referring to a supposed video of the showing the mayor of Toronto smoking crack, Carr writes, “By then the people who had claimed to have the video had gone to ground.”

My NOOB-dar whirred into action at that phrase gone to ground, with which I was not familiar but which had an unmistakable British sound to it. A look at the OED confirmed the suspicion; but even better, it’s a fox-hunting reference. I had hit some kind of jackpot.

The dictionary dates the phrase to 1797 and defines it as when the fox runs

into a burrow or hole in the ground, ‘to earth’… Also to lie at ground  . to go to ground  : also said of a dog. Also in other phrases, and fig. (of a person), to withdraw from public notice and live quietly or ‘lie low’

All citations are from Commonwealth countries and all  refer foxes or other animals until a 1964 quote (with telltale quotation marks, indicating newness): “The four men ‘went to ground’, probably in Johannesburg.” The expression appears currently to be popular in a sporting context, as in this quote from a 2009 Times rugby article originating in New Zealand: “But on defense, he is less assured and at times puts his team under pressure by offloading when it would be better to go to ground and set up the next phase of play.”

Note that this is different from the American expression “to run [something] into the ground,” meaning to destroy or ruin it by over- or misuse. Someone quoted in 2009 by the N. Y. Times’ Dealbook blog (unclear if he is British or American) seems to have confused the two: “Reuters’s Robert MacMillan argued that by letting the story of The [Boston] Globe’s possible demise leak, The [New York] Times may be betting that a white knight will emerge — ‘someone who fulminates long and hard about civic responsibility and not letting a hallowed journalistic institution go to ground.’”

I’m going to classify the David Carr/fox-hunting go to ground as “on the radar” rather than “outlier” because I found a couple of other uses in the Times in the past several months. Interestingly, they both came from members of the intelligence community, and it makes sense that it would have become popular in a world where people are, frequently, compelled to go to ground. In April, Philip Mudd, “a former senior C.I.A. and F.B.I. official,” referring to a Boston Marathon bombing suspect, said, “He’d get nervous and turn himself in, or he could go to ground.” And in February, Michael R. Shurkin, “a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst,” said, “Are they going to dig in and be guerrillas or go to ground and wait?”

22 thoughts on ““Go to Ground”

  1. More old-timey usage here, Ben: our terriers “go [went] to ground” in 1940 — but of course we didn’t publish it. And can you do anything about making “lie low” remain in its form rather than slithering into “lay low”?

  2. I’ve said this before in comments here (I think) that many of the phrases and words you cite are heard quite commonly around Boston for decades. I can’t give you any theory or reason re: why this is…it just is.
    Interesting all the same though, your blog. I enjoy it!

  3. I heard it growing up. BUT I was from Boston, with a law enforcement father. There was a mob term ‘go to the mattress’ , too.

  4. I don’t agreed that ‘to run something into the ground’ is an American expression – though I can’t prove it! It’s in common usage here in the UK.

  5. Foxhunting folk exist in the US, foxes go to ground, or the trail (since now they mostly draghunt) ends and disappears, so I cannot believe the term is not common parlance in various locales – maybe just not in the press Not One-Off scans?
    PETER re gone to ground and lie doggo, perhaps a connection but the meaning is different.

  6. ‘run into the ground’ is., I believe, from horse-riding, ie to RIDE into the ground, in the sense of ride a horse to the point of collapse.

    ‘lie doggo’ I guess is from fowling, where you need your hound to lie very still so as not to scare the game.

  7. This Yank is quite familiar with the phrase from film and television about the military, spies, and law enforcement.

    Per Google’s Ngram, UK usage shows ups and downs, but a generally increasing slope, since [before] 1800, with a growth spurt around WW I.

    Something must have happened in the late 1970s to take it worldwide, because that’s when it started its steepest climb in US English, and in 1978, there was an Australian TV movie with the title. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074579/ .

  8. “Go to ground” in sports is only punningly related to the fox-hunting/lie-low sense.

    In rugby, play goes to ground when the ball ends up on the ground instead of carried in a player’s hands. Tactics are quite different once this happens. See the Wikipedia article on “ruck” and “maul”.

    In soccer, “going to ground” is just a jocular way of saying “diving” (or “flopping” in US English) i.e.falling over pretending to have been fouled. I would guess this is a second round of punning/repurposing based on the rugby sense.

  9. There was a Powell & Pressburger film called Gone To Earth (UK, 1950), with foxy themes and metaphors – the heroine is “hounded”, presumably also a fox-hunting term, eventually to her death. Suitably for the transatlantic nature of this blog, the film was much cut and changed for the US release: producer David O Selznick shot new footage, including more close-ups of his starring wife (Jennifer Jones) and renamed it The Wild Heart (1952).

    P&P are my favourite film-makers, though I don’t much care for the somewhat florid and over-wrought Gone To Earth. A Matter Of Life And Death (1946) is my favourite film, though this title was also changed for US release, to Stairway To Heaven, in order to avoid the Britishism “death”.

    1. This is based on the wildly colourful novel by Mary Webb, also called ‘Gone to Earth’. She is the author of ‘Precious Bane’, which was satirised by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. All three of these books are well worth reading!

  10. True as the rugby aspect may be, I’m pretty sure most Brits will first think of – “to hide, especially to escape somebody who is chasing you” (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), and then the animal version.

    This appears to be from Geoffrey Household’s idiosyncratic pre-war thriller ‘Rogue Male’, first published in 1939:

    “I had gone to ground after the hunt, and the cold iron of the closed tank was more protective than the softest grass in the open” – Here the hunt is a manhunt (by the Nazis – he had tried to take a “sporting” potshot at Hitler). A bit later he says this was “the first of my dens , and I think that it provided me with the idea of the second” – a clear reference to foxes. Later he literally went to ground in the English countryside to escape the Nazi spies hunting him.

    1. I’m a Pink Floyd fan, and in a vein very similar to them is the song Raincheck, by Tin Star: ‘I still have time to go to ground. To go get lost before I get found.’

  11. Agreeing with Hal Hall – I watch a lot of TV here in the states, and the phrase sounded pretty familiar to me in the cop/security context. I wonder if someone went through transcripts of shows like 24, they’d find it.

  12. Source of the American usage quoted by Stacey may be “House of God”, the 1978 novel by Stephen Bergman: “Gomers go to ground.”

  13. I think the most likely source of “go to ground” in the sense that Carr used it, ie “quietly disappear,” is John le Carré. I recall many references to spies going to ground in the “Tinker Tailor” series.

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