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?”