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warren clements

Sometimes a phrase that has circulated in limited circles for years will suddenly be on everyone's lips. That seems to be happening with "drill down," an expression that began in the computer world, spread quickly to the business world and is now the go-to term for anyone seeking to use a muscular phrase for what is essentially a search for additional information.

Reader John Pickles noticed two mentions in this newspaper on Feb. 11. "Just wondering when this usage began," he wrote, "and if it has any connection to the data mining programs that try to infect your computer."

The first example, from a column about the effect of uncertain employment on communities, was a line from a professor: "We decided to do this on a neighbourhood level and sort of drill down a bit more." The other example involved a research analyst in an article about stocks. "Drilling down to individual companies, Mr. Harrison found the picture slightly less discouraging – but only slightly."

The image, taken from drilling for oil, appears to have surfaced in computer circles in the 1980s, when it meant navigating through folders or directories to find and retrieve desired data. The term was fresh enough in a 1988 article in Management Today that the periodical felt it necessary to attribute and define it. "Pilot ... calls these 'drill down' reports. By touching a piece of information that interests him, the executive can call up a screen which is designed to explain where that figure came from."

In the same year, Government Computer News wrote about "the 'drill-down' system of management in which top-level queries go through several layers of the organization before they are answered."

Now the phrase is in broad use as a synonym for focusing, concentrating, looking more closely or going into greater detail. On CNN on March 10, anchor Don Lemon spoke with reporter Shannon Travis about the U.S. Republican presidential primaries. "We talked a little bit about social issues. Can you drill down on that? What issues specifically seem to dominate in Kansas?"

Wendy Jaquet, a member of the Idaho legislature, was asked in The Idaho Statesman on March 12 to assess the house's use of interim committees. "I do think it makes legislators better in giving them a chance to drill down on an issue."

The phrase even popped up in a March 10 horoscope column in The Fiji Times, as advice for Libras. "Be it in love or in any other area of life, drill down. Don't take things at face value."

It must feel more dashing to describe one's exploits as drilling down rather than going on a fishing expedition, combing through the files or digging into the archives. "Drill down" says: I may be a white-collar fellow, but when it comes to rooting out crucial data or buried files, I am as determined, powerful and fit as the hardiest roustabout battling the elements on an oil rig. The illusion is in the same spirit as last decade's made-for-TV action-adventure movies about Flynn Carsen, librarian. (Sample title: The Librarian: Quest for the Spear.)

The origin of drill is comparatively dull, since, beyond recording its entry into English after 1600 and tracing it to the Middle Dutch word drillen (bore, turn round), etymologists have little idea where it came from. But then, drilling soldiers on a parade ground – making them repeat an action until it becomes second nature, a meaning similarly present in Middle Dutch – can itself be dull.

To drill a person dates from the 1700s as slang for shooting him full of holes. If a computer whiz shoots a theory full of holes by chasing through several directories to find a smoking gun, has she followed the drill of drilling down to drill? And if she did so with a drawl, would it be droll?