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I've done a bit of searching for this phrase and found the following:

"step into"

Idioms & Phrases

Involve oneself or intervene, as in He knew he'd be able to step into a job in his father's firm , or Jane asked Mary to step into the matter and settle it . Also see step in.

However, the place I first heard the phrase is on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, where Deakins, the supervisor of the Major Case Squad, uses it with a direct object of a suspect or a witness, which barely fits the definition. The definition implies usage towards a situation or position.

Exchanges on the show usually go something like this:

Detective: "We don't have any real leverage on him to find out what he knows!"

Supervisor: "Step into him."

Or:

Detective: "As long as his lawyer is protecting him, we'll never get him to talk."

Supervisor: "Step into him. Hard."

Detective: Re-enters the interrogation room and squeezes the information from the suspect over the lawyers increasing complaints.

That seems to imply there is another, even more idiomatic usage for the phrase with a meaning closer to "investigate" or "harass". How common is this idiom? Is the screen writer mis-using a legitimate idiom? Or is there another meaning or police/detective slang that's not so documented around the web?

1

To step into someone is to take a step uncomfortably close to them. It is frequently encountered in sports as a strategy to limit an opponent's freedom of motion or to recover initiative from an opponent with longer reach.

Zezel, a former pro soccer player, would often tie up his man's stick, step into him and kick the puck back to his winger. This is the type of play the creative center must learn to master if he is going to consistently control the faceoff. - hockeyshot.com, "How to Win Faceoffs"

You have options when you’re being defended aggressively in the post. The defender will often work to move you away from your comfort zone on the low block. Try any of the following strategies to create a seal down low:
. . . Face the defense: Turn and face your defensive man and step into him with one foot between his two feet. Turn and pivot, putting your butt into him to seal him off. - basketball.isport.com, "Effective Low Post Moves in Basketball"

The coach said to me, 'listen, keep up the pressure on this young boy. This boy is strong and he could move. So, you have to cut the ring off on him and step into him, and that is what I did. - Jamaica Observer, "Spencer too strong for overmatched Bowen"

Deakins is advising the detective to "get up close and personal" with the suspect, to press him closely with his questioning and give him no opportunity to put himself at an emotional or discursive "distance" from the detective's attack.

  • I played basketball as a kid and adolescent, but never heard the 'step into him' phrase. The hockey faceoff parallel makes the most sense as an analogy for interrogation and also as a likely source for an NYC/police dialect. Excellent sources! I'm super surprised Googling didn't turn them up. It seems usage has outpaced documentation once again. – Patrick M Jun 5 '13 at 13:27
  • @PatrickM I got all those through Google; but Google reports differently in different places. – StoneyB Jun 5 '13 at 14:02
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It's feasible the screenwriter is faithfully reporting a localised dialectal usage. But I think it more likely he's either ignorant, or simply trying to add interest to the script by using a mangled (but still understandable) variant on established idiomatic usages. Some results from Google...

You should step into him. (1 result, apparently from a non-native speaker)
You should step on him. (4470)
You should lay into him. (7460)
You should lean on him. (20800)

I'll step into him. (1 result, a "literal" usage where the speaker walks into his boisterous dog)
I'll step on him. (27900)
I'll lay into him. (19100)
I'll lean on him. (170000)

I think lean on him is probably the most common term for OP's context. This can also mean get support from him, but here the sense would be harass him / put pressure on him.

  • +1 for the "lean on" phrase. I have heard that used in contexts very similar to the show. Still hoping to hear from someone in the New York area (where the show is set). – Patrick M Jun 4 '13 at 20:12
  • @Patrick M: That reminds me - I did Google "step into him" (just to make sure it wasn't a common usage that I'd somehow never come across). I'll add that to the answer. – FumbleFingers Jun 4 '13 at 20:16
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I'm not sure, not having seen the shows in question, if either of these is the sense that is being referred to, but it is similar to the sports examples given above.

In Judo (and certain other Asian wrestling styles), the first move you make to get leverage for a throw is stepping between opponent's feet, which some teachers call "stepping into your opponent".

Dance has a similar principle, although it not usually for throwing. In ballroom dance, when partners are dancing close, they have to keep stepping one foot between the other partner's feet. Moving into this closed position is often called "stepping in to your partner". (... or "into". Slightly different sense, depends on the teacher, I think.)

In the case of dance, you usually do this to avoid throwing your partner.

It used to be taught as a technique for the lead partner. Professionals and dedicated amateurs, however, share and alternate lead, and when they close, unless they deliberately are doing something off-balance, both step in.

If you are wondering, yes, it is dangerous. Dance partners may not have to like each other, but they have to trust each other.

If this is what the lines are referring to, it would have multiple levels of meaning, some ironic -- getting leverage, taking control, getting the trust of the target they are about to hurt.

0

I seem to recall that the phrase in question - and what I believe is a close cousin "to step TO someone" occurs repeatedly in the HBO series The Wire. As with most such usage on TV, it is NOT carefully explained. The writers use the language the way they heard real people use it on the street and leave you to figure it out. My very strong impression though was, that in the context of The Wire, it implied challenge. In other words, if someone came up to a corner boy (a local drug dealer) and defied or challenged him in some way, the corner boy would ask "Are you stepping to me?". There was always an implied menace in the corner boy's tone and facial expression, suggesting that anyone who stepped to him was taking his life in his hands.

If you're not familiar with The Wire - and shame on you for that, it's truly brilliant! - you should know that it is set and filmed in Baltimore, Maryland, USA and the creators are a longtime journalist at the Baltimore Sun-Times named David Simon and a retired homicide detective turned middle-school teacher named Ed Burns. The Wire just screams authenticity. I have every confidence that they are conveying the dialog exactly as people in Baltimore speak; I don't think they're just making up phrases like "stepping into" or "stepping to". It wouldn't remotely surprise me if other cities have the same or similar phrases. Some areas may have actually learned these phrases from The Wire, thanks to TV!

As for the origins, I have no idea but it seems entirely possible that the phrases originated in sports as per some of the other answers to the question, and then adapted slightly for use on the street, especially in the drug culture.

That's my best guess at an answer for the OP. :-)

  • Urban Dictionary seems to agree about "step to". Strangely, the variant "stepping to" is said to be a London/UK variant. Both of these are distinct from the variant "step into" and how it is used in Law & Order, which rarely depicts violence or threats of violence by the police against suspects, let alone witnesses. Thanks for your contribution. – Patrick M Jul 12 '17 at 17:51
  • I suppose there's a remote possibility that the writers of The Wire got the phrase "step to" from some of the British actors who starred in the show. Dominic West and Idris Elba could conceivably have used those expressions in conversation or rehearsal with the writers incorporating it in the script. An email to David Simon ought to get a definitive answer to that possibility. – Henry Jul 13 '17 at 1:10

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