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Well I just earned one :). According to the description it's awarded to a question which receives literally no attention in a week. (Snapshot below)

enter image description here

So it led me to the notion that a "tumbleweed" might metaphorically refer to someone or something that receives little or no attention or gets ignored. I searched the OED, which, however, listed only its original meaning

A plant of arid regions which breaks off near the ground in late summer, forming light globular masses which are tumbled about by the wind.


Even if I must use the word metaphorically, I wouldn't possibly relate it to " getting ignored", which seems to me completely irrelevant to its original meaning.

So what on earth does the "tumbleweed" metaphorically mean in the badge name?

  • Tumbleweeds aren't necessarily ignored, but they exist and get blown around on vast, empty, uninhabited plains in the American west. – Kristina Lopez Jun 19 '15 at 19:05
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    I don't have the time right now to write up a complete answer, but due to endless scenes tumbleweeds tumbling down empty, deserted streets, often in ghost towns, in the once extremely-popular Western genre of films, in the US at least, tumbleweeds have become associated with desolation and emptiness (they do come from desolate, empty, deserts, after all). Similar to "cricket noises" after a joke bombs (ie no one is laughing, so it's so quiet you can literally hear the crickets chirping). TVtropes will have much more to say on the subject, I'm sure. – Dan Bron Jun 19 '15 at 19:05
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    @DanBron Sounds like a complete answer to me – dj18 Jun 19 '15 at 19:41
  • Please add a link to your hammertoss question. Maybe someone will answer it. Or at least upvote it. You will still keep the badge. – ab2 Dec 23 '16 at 14:36
  • @ab2 well actually I have stopped playing Prototype for quite a while. But, alright, I'll add it, in case there's someone else who's interested. – Vim Dec 23 '16 at 14:52
15
+100

The notion of the loneliness of the tumbleweed in the U.S. West is captured by the song "Tumbleweed," by Douglas Van Arsdale (made famous by Joan Baez):

I feel like a lonesome tumbleweed/rolling across an open plain,/I feel like something nobody needs/I feel my life drifting away,/drifting away -

I feel like a broken wagon wheel/when I can't hop a slow-moving train/Think I know how a coyote feels/when he's howling just to/ease the pain, since he's been away.

Lord, I feel like rolling,/rolling along, so keep your big/wind blowing till all my natural/days are gone -/till my days are all gone.

I'm just a lonesome tumbleweed/turning end over end./Once I pulled all my roots free/I became a slave to the wind,/a slave to the wind.

So it is a sad and lonely feeling (according to the badge namers at Stack Exchange) when you ask a question and few people see it and no one responds to it.

Interesting tumbleweed fact: Although tumbleweeds of various plant families are common in parts of the United States (some of them native to North America), one of the largest and in some places most prevalent species west of the Mississippi River is not native to the New World; rather, it is a Eurasian species also known as the Russian Thistle (Kali tragus) and (perhaps most evocatively) as the "wind witch."

Wikipedia's general article on tumbleweeds ends with a discussion of the symbolism of the plant that seems relevant to the current discussion:

The tumbleweed's association with the Western film genre has led to a highly symbolic meaning in visual media. It has come to represent locations that are desolate, dry, and often humorless, with few or no occupants. A common use is when characters encounter a long abandoned or dismal-looking place: a tumbleweed will be seen rolling past, often accompanied by the sound of a dry, hollow wind. This is sometimes used for comic effect in locations where tumbleweeds are not expected, but the emptiness is obvious.

As with the sound of crickets, tumbleweeds can also be shown to emphasize an awkward silence after a bad joke or a character otherwise making an absurd declaration, with the aforementioned sound of wind and the plant rolling past in the background.

The awkward silence memorialized by Stack Exchange's tumbleweed badge is the emptiness of the page where the question has been posted but no one has answered it, commented on it, or voted on it for a full week. Bury me not on the lone prairie.

  • 1
    The tumbleweed Psoralidium lanceolatum is native to the western United States, Alberta and Saskatchewan plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PSLA3 and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psoralidium_lanceolatum Russian Thistle is different books.google.com/… – DavePhD Dec 19 '16 at 14:57
  • "Historical Common Names of Great Plains Plants Volume I: Historical Names" is a good reference for which exact species have been considered "tumbleweeds" books.google.com/… – DavePhD Dec 19 '16 at 15:13
  • "Common TUMBLEWEED (Amaranthus albus L.) This is the plant most frequently mistaken for the Russian Thistle. The Common Tumbleweed is frequently mistaken for the Russian Thistle, which it closely resembles in form." books.google.com/… – DavePhD Dec 19 '16 at 15:17
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    @DavePhD: Thank you for pointing out that Russian thistle is but one kind of tumbleweed and that some types of tumbleweed are native to North America. I have revised my answer accordingly. Wikipedia lists ten plant families that it says include one or more species that qualify as "form[ing] tumbleweeds"—a designation that clearly reflects popular perception rather than cladistic precision. – Sven Yargs Dec 19 '16 at 23:03
  • @SvenYargs +1 good answer. In the US, Russian Thistle started to spread from the town of Scotland, South Dakota in 1873, and sometimes the word "tumbleweed" was used just for the native species in contrast to Russian Thistle, but now there is no such distinction. – DavePhD Dec 19 '16 at 23:34
8

A tumbleweed is an object often shown in Western movies, or (maybe even more often) in parodies of such movies to show that a place is desolated and empty. It is a broken off piece of bush which the wind rolls around. This shows that a place is lonely, sad and there's nothing but howling wind around there.

So, in the context of a question on StackExchange, a tumbleweed indicates a desolated question which attracts no one's attention.

5

Self-explanatory:

a lonely tumbleweed in a deserted plain

Image source: genius.com

  • 2
    Animation helps underscore the desolation :). – choster Jun 19 '15 at 21:01
  • Does anyone else think this looks familiar? – ab2 Dec 19 '16 at 18:08
4

See Weeds and Literature Collier's 27 March 1915, page 15

The tumbleweed was a humble little plant... not yet wept, honored or sung. It had no chance.

This is in the context of why Mark Twain ignored tumbleweeds in his writing.

4

Tumbleweed is a weed that tumbles across the prairie in the wind.


OED

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the name in U.S. for various plants which form a globular bush which in late summer is broken off and rolled about by the wind; a rolling weed.

Their first quotation:

1887 Amer. Naturalist 21 930 Amarantus albus, the common tumble-weed.


An antedating

But here's an antedating from The New England Farmer: Devoted to Agriculture, Horticulture, and its Kindred Arts and Sciences (Boston, Jaunary 1858, Vol. X, No. 1):

New England Farmer masthead

A VEGETABLE CURIOSITY--THE TUMBLE WEED. Among all the examples chosen from the innumerable productions of nature to illustrate natural theology, I do not recollect to have seen the tumble weed, at it is commonly called, (I have not looked out the botanical name,) and yet if it is not a speaking witness, it is a living, moving witness that there is an intelligent creature. These may be seen moving across almost any of large western fields in the fall of the year, and remain all winter in the corners of the fences as if stationed to remind the passer-by that there is a God. I have just brought one of these weeds into my study. It is of the common form, and a little above the common size. It resembles a gooseberry bush, or it is of the general form and size of a farmer's corn-basket, and so nearly round or globular that a light wind will roll or tumble it along upon the ground, dropping its countless seeds all the way. And nature has not only given it this self-threshing and self-sowing power, but has connected with it a provision for getting loose. The strong thick root becomes so weak about an inch below ground, just as the weed gets ripe that a light wind will hurl it about in every direction.

A VEGETABLE CURIOSITY--THE TUMBLE WEED.

Among all the examples chosen from the innumerable productions of nature to illustrate natural theology, I do not recollect to have seen the tumble weed, at it is commonly called, (I have not looked out the botanical name,) and yet if it is not a speaking witness, it is a living, moving witness that there is an intelligent creature. These may be seen moving across almost any of large western fields in the fall of the year, and remain all winter in the corners of the fences as if stationed to remind the passer-by that there is a God. I have just brought one of these weeds into my study. It is of the common form, and a little above the common size. It resembles a gooseberry bush, or it is of the general form and size of a farmer's corn-basket, and so nearly round or globular that a light wind will roll or tumble it along upon the ground, dropping its countless seeds all the way. And nature has not only given it this self-threshing and self-sowing power, but has connected with it a provision for getting loose. The strong thick root becomes so weak about an inch below ground, just as the weed gets ripe that a light wind will hurl it about in every direction.

  • 2
    I've sent this antedating to the OED. – Hugo Dec 20 '16 at 9:16
  • As a hyphenated word, there is this February 1875 article in the children's magazine St. Nicholas books.google.com/… – DavePhD Dec 20 '16 at 12:40
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    An Elephind search yields multiple instances of "tumble weed," "tumble-weed," and even "tumbleweed" before 1887—but nothing as early as 1858. Well done! – Sven Yargs Dec 20 '16 at 22:38
  • Oh, Elephind is new to me! Thanks for mentioning it! – Hugo Dec 21 '16 at 6:03
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    @Vim Elephind aggregates results from 3m newspapers from 20 different sources, from the US, Australia and New Zealand, from 1787 to 2016: elephind.com/?a=p&p=about COCA is the Corpus of Contemporary American English. – Hugo Dec 21 '16 at 11:28
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It's like that famous epigram, or if you prefer, philosophical reflection:

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Likewise a question on a Stack Exchange website, if it has been asked but never answered, and never commented, was it ever seen? The badge offers a small consolation as it tells the OP that at least his or her question has been noted by the overlords in SE.

Like a tumbleweed that rolls aimlessly in the desert, an answered question on SE “tumbles” in the no answers column, abandoned and long-forgotten.

enter image description here

Etymonline says that tumbleweed, once spelled tumble-weed, is a compound noun derived from tumble + weed, and it gives 1881 as its first written instance. @Hugo's answer suggests that the term is older than that, possibly as long ago as 1858

But what was this skeletal plant called before the 1860s? @Sven Yargs's answer mentions ‘Russian Thistle’, which was also known as ‘leap-the-field’, ‘Tartar thistle’, and which German immigrants fondly called wind witch.

enter image description here

An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire By Robert Sears, 1856. (published, New York)

An article from the Daily Mail (Nov 2013) contains this snippet of information

  • Some stories claim that it was brought to America by Ukrainian farmers, but it's exactly origins are tricky to pinpoint.

  • In the 1890s a legislator proposed that a fence be built around the state to stem the incursion, but a decade after it had first been noticed, it was too late and the weed had already found its way to Canada.

  • It quickly spread across the West and by 1885 it had reached California and in 1959 it was collected for the first time in Hawaii.

For an example of a tumbleweed question that later grew roots and set up home: see Helmar's question which earned four upvotes, attracted several users' comments, and an answer, but only after the tumbleweed owner edited his post. There is hope for everyone, after all ☺

19th December 2016

There is a WINTER BASH hat for anyone who answers a tumbleweed question. Only 158 badges have been awarded since 2013, so hurry and grab your chance to earn a pretty rare hat.
P.S I earned my lifesaver hat on English Language Learners.
P.P.S The OP must accept the answer.

  • 2
    What happens if the tree falls on a tumbleweed? – deadrat Jun 19 '15 at 22:36
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    @deadrat: That's essentially what happens when nobody upvotes or comments on a question, but one person, without explanation, downvotes it. – Sven Yargs Jun 19 '15 at 22:39
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    @SvenYargs Oh, well played! – deadrat Jun 19 '15 at 22:43
  • @deadrat - Now, see? What's not to like? You made me laugh. – aparente001 Dec 19 '16 at 7:06
  • I know you will never get used to this, but had you only used the bigendian 2016-12-19, you’d’ve been universally accessible to all thanks to the ISO standard date format. That’s because that littlendian form you wrote there turns out to be a believe-it-or-else regionalism pretty much guaranteed to confuse your unregional friends, who, many of them being middlendians at heart, shall have gone wandering around the uncharted ephemerides in the forlorn hope of determining when your curiously intercalary Undevigintember the Twelfth should happen to fall during MMXVI.:) – tchrist Dec 19 '16 at 14:20

protected by tchrist Jan 31 '18 at 15:09

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