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I recently heard someone say, "I'm on detail." What does this mean?

For context, I was getting lunch takeout at a restaurant, and in line behind another person also getting takeout. The restaurant employee recognized the person ahead of me and asked, "Oh, are you taking the day off?" He responded, "No, I'm on detail."

Notably, the customer ahead of me was wearing non-work clothes.


Here's a theory about the conversation that would explain the meaning of "I'm on detail" as meaning undercover police detail. It explains both the restaurant worker's question and also the customer's answer. This utilizes two additional context clues: this was lunchtime takeout, and the customer was wearing non-work clothes.

Why did the worker ask the question? He must be used to seeing the customer at other times and/or wearing work clothes. This suggests the customer must have a job with a distinct uniform.

Why did the customer's response answer the question? The answer "I'm on detail" must somehow be related to the fact that he was not taking the day off. Saying "on [undercover] detail" explains why he was not wearing his police uniform as usual.

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    @Cascabel_StandWithUkraine_ - Surely the OP says that it was another customer, not a restaurant employee? Jun 15 at 17:30
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    Are you sure you're not missing another word? "On kitchen detail"? On some other type of detail?
    – Laurel
    Jun 15 at 17:44
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    Lots of businesses have their own particular jargon. The sense "detail"="doing a particular job" is probably involved here, but what the precise job is, how someone is assigned to it, or who is doing it, may well be unique to that workplace.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 15 at 18:21
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    I can't come up with specific-enough search terms to find a source, but I have a vague recollection of "on detail" being used in some context for "on standby", i.e. assigned as a reserve but not actually on duty. Perhaps this will jog someone's memory.
    – Chris H
    Jun 16 at 7:51
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    I think this all demonstrates that there's not a specific, widely-understood meaning to this — unless the context provides one.
    – gidds
    Jun 16 at 12:08

2 Answers 2

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It means temporarily assigned to work with another group--here's a definition from the US Postal Service:

A detail assignment is the temporary placement of a career employee in another established position that is vacant or from which the incumbent is absent.

So basically the first person is asking the second person why they aren't in their usual office today (for example if they have the day off). And the second person responds that they aren't on vacation, but they are temporarily working with a different group in a different location so that's why they aren't in the office.

I'm not sure how common this is outside of the US federal workforce, but it's pretty common for govies in my area and they are just normal office workers.

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  • Yes, this indeed appears to be correct. I seem to have overlooked some examples. I was aware of it meaning to be assigned to do a task, but somehow missed that it could have been a temporary task. I've now edited my answer to include some more supporting examples for this definition.
    – Justin
    Jun 17 at 6:07
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    @Justin I wouldn't be surprised if it started in the military and then just spread to the rest of the federal workforce...but it is super, super common in my area. 1) It's a good way to pull people who are experts so they can advise another group, e.g. user representatives to advise people who are creating software. 2) Almost all the federal employees in my area are unionized so it's hard to fire/demote people--so instead of promoting someone directly you give them a detail to a higher/different position, then if you like them you convert to perm and if you don't you just let the detail end. Jun 17 at 13:49
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    ...3) Also, because the federal budget is weird, there are often "hiring freezes" where you can't hire permanent people, but sometimes you can creatively work around that with detail positions...also you can get very creative with money, since someone who's on a detail is often paid out of a different funding pool... (Yes, taxpayer dollars at work. US federal gov't is a pain in the rear, truly.) Jun 17 at 13:58
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Detail as a noun refers to a specific task that someone is (temporarily) assigned.

To be on detail means to be temporarily assigned to do a task that is different from one's regular assignment. Similar to the verb detailed to, which, according to Collins, means "to appoint or assign for some particular duty". So if I'm on detail tonight, then it means that I've been temporarily assigned to do a task/duty that is different from what I usually do.

This phrase mostly appears to be some sort of military/police/security jargon from all the usages I've seen. Although, looking at user3067860's answer, it seems to be used outside of military/police/security as well. The examples below were only limited to "I'm on detail", so I've included some more examples with the general phrase "is on detail" supporting user3067860's answer and mine as well.


Here are some examples of [I'm / is] on detail being used in different contexts:

From The Guide to Processing Personnel Actions, Volume 2, 1992:

f. Detail. A detail is the temporary assignment of an employee to a different position for a specified period when the employee is expected to return to his/her regular duties at the end of the assignment. (When an employee is on detail, he/she is considered for strength count purposes to be permanently occupying his/her regular position.)

From Elder Sign End Times Trilogy Book One: Arkham by Jennifer Stanfield:

"Actually I have some packing to do and goodbyes to make. Now that you've sealed the alliance, I'm on detail to head back with you to your bunkers tomorrow to train you all to use our weapons. We'll be bringing your first shipment of medicine and food, too."

"That's great!" he blurted out, glad they'd get to keep hanging out together despite her sudden prickliness today.

From Federal Labor Relations Reporter, Volume 1, 1991:

The Authority found that an employee who is on detail continues to occupy the position from which he was detailed. [...]

From Imprint by A. M. Ellis:

"Kipper," Jace warned.
Kipper cleared his throat. "That's my cue. I've got to get some sleep anyway. I'm on detail tonight." He stood.
"Detail?" Kira asked curiously.
A confident grin spread across Kipper's face. "I lead a team in patrolling parts of the city. We also do a bit of reconnaissance outside the borders and operate a source network within. It's pretty complicated."

From Troopship by Kate Holiday:

Know what I'm doing on this bucket? I'm on detail to clean garbage cans!

[Snippet view]

From Melody of Darkness by Eliza Tilton and Redd Mercury:

The door to Jackson's room opened and Jinx who had assimilated into Derrick's role walked in. "You know, kid, I'm liking this detail less and less. I've been on some boring ops, but this takes the cake. You know what, I think I'll take you up on that."

"What? No way. That easy? Really? I thought you would have told us hell to the no," Marcus said to the bodyguard.

"Look here twinkle toes just because I'm on detail doesn't mean I can't bend rules. My orders are to be pipsqueak's shadow, not to let him out of my sight. They never said where he had to be." Jinx snatched the handball out of mid-flight.

From We Come in Peace by Gerald C. Anderson Sr.:

He arrived at the General's office shortly after leaving Israel's office. He pretended to be cleaning the General's office as was often his detail. When he was sure no one was around he retrieved the recorder from the General's office. Knowing he would be searched when he left, Isaac placed the recorder in the crouch of his pants. He knew the guard would not search him there.
Just after Isaac finished hiding the device General Idit walked through the door.
"What are you doing here," the General commanded?
"Sir, I am Isaac, and I am on detail to clean your office. I was just finishing up.. ."
"Get out...now," the General huffed!

From To Promote the Free Flow of Domestically Produced Fishery Products in Commerce, 1939:

Senator SHEPPARD. How long were you in the rivers and harbors work prior to your present position?
Colonel SOMERVELL. About 23 years.
Senator SHEPPARD. You had your present rank in the Army at the beginning?
Colonel SOMERVELL. Yes, sir. General Schley stated that $25.000,000 ought to be made available the first year, and I agree with that. I think that that covers the notes that I made this morning, sir. If there are any questions, I will be glad to try to answer them.
Senator SHEPPARD. You are on leave at the present from your work or position in the Army, in order to do this W. P. A. work?
Colonel SOMERMEL. No, sir; I am on detail to this work.
Senator SHEPPARD. That is what I meant. You are detailed to that work in your present service?
Colonel SOMERVELL. Yes. I am an active officer.

From President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control: [...], 1982:

Mr. MARGULIES. Janet Colson, who is, I think, in Mr. Meese's office.
The CHAIRMAN. Mr. Meese's office? It is my understanding she was in the Department of Commerce.
Mr. MARGULIES. She is in the Department with us for this function. I think she is on detail from some agency to do that with us.
The CHAIRMAN. She was detailed from some agency to Meese's office, and from Meese's office to Commerce?
Mr. MARGULIES. Yes. Is that correct, Joe? Would you speak to that?

From Code of Federal Regulations: 2000-:

(3) Temporary duties.

An employee ordinarily acquires official responsibility for all matters within the scope of his position immediately upon assuming the position. However, under certain circumstances, an employee who is on detail (or other temporary assignment) to a position or who is serving in an "acting" status might not be deemed to have official responsibility for any matter by virtue of such temporary duties. Specifically, an employee performing such temporary duties will not thereby acquire official responsibility for matters within the scope of the position where he functions only in a limited "caretaker" capacity, as evidenced by such factors as: [...]

From CSRS and FERS Handbook for Personnel and Payroll Offices, Volume 591, 1988:

c. Detail. Payment of an allowance, at the rate prescribed for the post of regular assignment, continues for all periods of detail including transit time. Payment of a differential continues for the first 42 consecutive calendar days, including transit time, during which an employee is on detail from his post of regular assignment. When an employee has been in a pay status during a period of detail at one or more differential posts for more than 42 days, he is thereafter to be paid the differential established for each post of detail in either a nonforeign or a foreign area at which he serves on detail. If the detailed employee is receiving additional pay [...]

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    But notice that they almost always say what that assignment is: "I'm on detail to X". Military/police/security are the exceptions where there's an implicit assignment (e.g. police monitoring roadside contruction). I guess in the OP's story, the restaurant employee knows what the patron's job is and what kind of detail it would be.
    – Barmar
    Jun 16 at 14:24

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