Given that 'neck deep' is an expression, does 'knee deep' mean it's not that bad? Or rather do they both have negative connotations that the former just takes to the extreme.

I realize both expressions are not used together.

It's always bothered me intellectually but instinctively, I assume they both imply bad situations. Is this correct?

I've also encountered 'ankle deep'

  • 1
    'Knee deep' can be either positive or negative. 'Knee deep' in Mars Bars is no hardship but 'knee deep' in carnivorous frogs would be. But up to my neck is - as far as I have ever known - a negative experience.
    – Nigel J
    Apr 26, 2018 at 19:19
  • 2
    "Knee deep" in sewage is not as bad as "neck deep" in sewage, but it's not all that good, either.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 27, 2018 at 1:23
  • 2
    Of course, "knee deep" is also what a frog says.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 27, 2018 at 1:25
  • 1
    @HotLicks I nearly croaked when I read that.
    – Barmar
    Apr 30, 2018 at 18:14

4 Answers 4


I will offer a contrarian perspective here, and propose that neck-deep functions differently from knee-deep often enough to warrant a clear distinction, although this by no means lets knee-deep off the hook as being necessarily "not that bad." See penultimate paragraph and corresponding example for caveat.

I notice in newspapers around the period from 1910 to 1920 that the phrase "neck deep" is used often in a literal sense to refer to people that are, for all intents and purposes, completely submerged and only floating in the natural position for a human being in water, which is exactly neck deep.

When figuratively extended, this is almost never used to describe a good thing.

Germany is neck deep in Russia fighting

writes the Chicago Tribune (paywall) in 1918.

It seems to me that the figurative expression, like the literal one, might carry more of a connotation of being stuck in something to the extent that your feet are not on the ground, as in the case of Germany warring with Russia, whereas knee-deep actually draws attention to the legs and their movement. Knee-deep, then, is well-suited to describe a situation in which one is beleaguered by obstacles and proceeds, whereas neck-deep might suggest that the situation is too dire to proceed.

Consider some case studies:

Kimberly Howard was knee-deep in planning her wedding when she and her then-fiancé heard some friends talking about a service they used to plan their own honeymoon.

One would be less likely to say that they were neck-deep in wedding planning, since the activity is generally a positive and optimistic one, and doesn't imply a complete incapacitation of the person undergoing the planning.

In an article dated today in People magazine, actor and comedian Patton Oswalt relays a story about the death of his wife.

“I was still neck deep in grief and suddenly a single father and not sleeping, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to live and go on with life if this was left undone,” he told Meyers of finishing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “I basically begged [the co-authors] and the publishers to find a way and they were the ones to find a way and finish it.”

Here again, neck-deep seems fitting in describing a kind of grief so crippling that it forms the basis of an existential struggle. One would not be likely to say "knee deep in grief," perhaps because the implication would be likely to strike a listener or reader as not quite bad enough.

My conclusion is that no, the mere existence of "neck deep" as an expression doesn't have any relative implication on uses of "knee deep," but because each expression corresponds to a quite different literal situation, the figurative extensions have somewhat unique connotations, and it could be said that there are some cases where "knee-deep" and "neck-deep" could both be used, and some cases where one would be an unlikely fit compared to the other.

  • 1
    This is a good answer. And of course, in a literal sense, there is an ascending level of peril as the water level (or whatever) rises. That's the point of the great protest song "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," where the troops go first knee deep, then waist deep, and then neck deep in the Mississippi River—"and the big fool says to push on."
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 27, 2018 at 1:59
  • +1 This pretty much covers what I was tempted to write: "Knee-deep = it's difficult to keep going, Neck-deep = not far off drowning. Clearly neck-deep is worse, but they're not really used in the same sort of situation."
    – AndyT
    Apr 27, 2018 at 8:58

Google Books searches turn up matches for "ankle deep in trouble," "knee deep in trouble," "thigh deep in trouble," "ass deep in trouble," "waist deep in trouble," "chest deep in trouble," "shoulder deep in trouble," "neck deep in trouble," and "eyeball deep in trouble." Understood literally, these would seem to be distinct gradations of trouble, corresponding to, say, water levels. But being used figuratively by different writers, such word choices may not indicate the same levels of trouble in different settings where they appear.

The exception is when one writer uses multiple figurative expressions of this type. Thus, in a bio blurb for Leonard Peterson in Rolf Kalman, A Collection of Canadian Plays (1972), we read this:

Upon completing his formal education, he has been banging out plays and stories over many decades now for radio, television, theatre, film and print. He is often knee-deep or neck-deep in trouble because he has never properly learned what to write and what not to write. He just writes, in his Indian country way.

And from A.T. Nialo, The Lost Children (2014):

“What else can you think of that will end up getting me waist deep in trouble?”

“I don't do anything half way.” She knew his question was rhetorical. “I plan to make you at least neck deep.”

In both of these instances, it seems quite clear that knee or waist deep in trouble is not as bad as neck deep in trouble.

But more generally, a writer is under no obligation to calibrate degrees of trouble from toe to hairline nor to convert any such estimates made with reference to a generic human body into truly objective measurements such as inches or centimeters. "Knee-deep in trouble" may leave room for worse flooding, figuratively speaking, but it is still plenty of trouble.

  • I have never heard “eyeball deep,” but “up to my eyeballs” is extremely common.
    – KRyan
    Apr 27, 2018 at 3:46

If someone is in bad trouble, in British English we can say idiomatically that he is "up to his neck in it". "It" could be figurative manure or faeces, or a policeman might accuse someone of being "up to his neck" (i.e. involved) in a crime . I have only found the expression "neck deep" in a small number of places - it is the name of a Welsh rock band, and it is listed as meaning "deeply involved" in a small number of online "slang" or "urban" dictionaries, which have no particular standing as authorities. It may be current (very) informal usage in some demographics e.g. US under 30s. In contrast, "knee deep" and "ankle deep" are mainly used in a literal sense, when people are immersed up to the named joint in a liquid, usually water. I have heard people who are involved in difficult or frustrating situation say "I'm knee deep in shit because of this!", but, again, this is deeply informal.


I assume both 'neck deep' and 'knee deep' imply bad situations. Is this correct?

Yes. Imagine some body part is buried in something remarkable enough to remark upon. Let's see -- mud? Muck? It's not good.

Given that 'neck deep' is an expression, does 'knee deep' mean it's not that bad?

Not necessarily. These expressions can't be mapped precisely to any sort of number line or axis. They're colorful expressions. In a given piece of writing, the author is not likely to use more than one. Inherently, they don't provide relative measurements.

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