“Kick/push into the long grass”

Katherine Connor Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford University Press, tweeted me a quote from a Nov. 30 New York Times article about a potential state visit of Donald Trump to Britain: “Even before the latest uproar, there was speculation that the state visit was being pushed into the long grass.” She commented, “First time I recall seeing this BrE soccer metaphor (it’s usually ‘kick’) in a US pub[lication].”

The OED says “kick into the long grass” was originally political and defines it as “to put aside, defer; to sideline.” The first citation is a 1973 quote from The Times, which the OED notes employs an extended football (soccer) metaphor: “Mr Rippon set himself up as the archapostle of community politics..with all sorts of pledges about not ‘kicking the ball into the long grass’ from which it might emerge muddier than before.”

(Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, gives another meaning for “long grass,” defined in a 1986 quotation from Bob Geldof: “When you have not seen someone for a long time and you ask them where they have been they might replay, ‘Oh, I’ve been in the long grass,’ meaning they’ve been around but not visible.”)

As Katherine suggested, the phrase is not commonly encountered in the U.S. All the Google Books hits for “kicked into the long grass” are British. And as she also suggested “push” is a fairly rare variant, with only twenty total Google hits for “push/ed it into the long grass.” The first seems to have been a 2011 quote from the actor Hugh Grant, referring to his campaign against newspapers’ phone hacking: “Grant called this an ‘enormous national scandal,’ saying, ‘The politicians will for sure try to push it into the long grass.'”

Two of the hits are from American sources, one being the New York Times article I mentioned at the start. It actually doesn’t count as a NOOBs source because it was written by Cambridge graduate Stephen Castle. The second is a testimonial from someone identified as “Nick from NYC” to  a company called Speedy Papers, which sells students plagiarized term papers. He supposedly said:

“My paper was easy from the first sight and I pushed it into the long grass. I had only 24 hours to complete it. Speedypaper writer did my 3 page writing in 16 hours. You helped me out of difficulties. Keep right on!”

If Nick exists, he is almost certainly not from NYC as no one there says “pushed it into the long grass.” And “Keep right on” is a pure British phrase, originating in a Scottish hymn sung by Harry Lauder and adopted by the Birmingham City football club. (“From the first sight” also sounded odd to me–the familiar expression is “at first sight” or “at first glance”–but it seems like it’s used by Americans.)

Because of the lack of U.S. examples, I’m categorizing this as an “Outlier.”

In the course of my research, I came across a 1966 quote from a Parliamentary debate: “”In other words, how long is the ball to be kicked into the long grass?” I tweeted it out since it predates the first OED citation by seven years. A few days later, the official OED Twitter account, @OED, replied:

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 6.24.18 PM

That truly made my day; for a geek like me, contributing an initial citation to an OED definition is an achievement along the lines of a birder spotting an orange-bellied parrot. A friend asked, “Is this like winning an Oscar for you?” I said: “No. Lifetime Achievement Award.”

21 thoughts on ““Kick/push into the long grass”

    1. As a cricketer myself, I really can’t agree with you. I’ve never heard a single cricketer or cricket commentator ever say this in a cricket context. Even the grass in the outfield is very short indeed.

  1. Well done… on attaining the equivalent “Lifetime Achievement Award.”
    It must be a good feeling when you can successfully influence the OED!

  2. I’d always assumed that this was a golfing term – give that it’s the only sport that actually has long grass as part it it’s list of in-game hazards (along with water, sand and wind).

    And as it is being specifically applied to someone who owns golf-courses, perhaps people were trying to “speak his language”.

    1. But why would a golfer ever kick his or her ball into the long grass? That would make a more difficult shot. Of course, a devious golfer might kick an opponent’s ball into the long grass–but that would be a far different meaning from that of the idiom.

      1. I’m not convinced about it being derived from golf. The only reason to kick a golf ball into long grass would be to cheat by moving the ball to an area deemed out of play, but I don’t think this fits with the idiom. Doing this might keep the golfer’s score lower (than trying to play it from a bad position), but it would also speed up proceedings, whereas the point of the idiom is deliberate delay.

        I’ve always understood it to be a reference to the fact that if a ball does go into the long grass this will cause a delay in proceedings, either because the ball is hard to find or because it is hard to get out of the long grass. So, if one deliberately kicks a ball into the long grass, one is deliberately causing a delay (allowing procrastination of something difficult or contentious).

        So, I’m not sure it is a reference to tactics in any particular sport. Just a reference to deliberately doing something to postpone a decision in a manner that can plausibly be claimed to be an accident.

        Perhaps golf is the only one that fits, because it is the only one where you would expect long grass. However, many soccer or rugby pitches do have long grass nearby. For instance, the verges of our school playing fields, or the local park.

  3. “and take a one-stroke penalty for a lost ball” – but that’s not the point of the idiom, the point is that there isn’t any particular time limit for the player to look for the “lost” ball. Perhaps he might need to deal with a call-of-nature or make a phone call.

    1. I think the point is that the when the ball has been kicked into the long grass and declared “lost” the game can move on without the time expense of grovelling through the grass to find it. The ball can potentially be retrieved later, but its whereabouts are now irrelevant to the progress of the game.

      1. I think that the political metaphor actually does rather mean “grovelling through the grass” in a vein attempt to find it. Anyway….

  4. Whenever I’ve heard this idiom (and it’s not uncommon) I’ve always had the image of a kid walking home, kicking a football along a grassy field, constantly giving it a kick to push it further forward in the direction he’s walking, so he never has to actually pick it up to carry it home. See also “kick the can down the road”.

    1. Of course, that’s probably not the the explanation for this phrase’s origin, but it makes more sense than the contorted sporting explanations to me, none of which really work with the sports in question.

  5. Hmmm – in Australia the ‘long grass’ is where homeless indigenous people are said to sleep, it has racial overtones. And it reflects on the parlous conditions of many Australia’s Aboriginal people. I suspect the BBC down under journalists never move far from the big city cafes.

    But I agree with your image of the kid kicking a ball. It certainly fits the pattern of the Eurozone deliberations on Greece, on which the phrase must have been used a thousands of times in the British MSM

  6. Today, former MP John Brown explained “lose the ball in the long grass” from Cricket: a hopelessly losing team will intentionally lose the ball in the long grass so the match will have to be called. He was speaking of how PM Theresa May was intentionally interfering with Brexit, seeing she was a closet Globalist in sympathy with the EU.

  7. I thought it referred to keeping a person hanging, as in baseball or rounders where they need a certain number of players but the worst players are counted but kept on the margins or lo g glass where they are out of tbe way.

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