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The Meaning and Origin of the Idiom 'Barking Up the Wrong Tree'

Payal Kanjwani May 10, 2019
"Dude, you're simply barking up the wrong tree! That girl clearly has no interest in you." Confused with what that meant? Well, you're barking up the 'right' way then. Penlighten digs deeper into the meaning of the idiom 'barking up the wrong tree.'
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an idiom as "an expression that cannot be understood from the meanings of its separate words but that has a separate meaning of its own."
'Barking up the wrong tree' sure gives us the idea of it being associated with dogs!
The English language is full of colloquialisms. They (unconsciously) add a flair to the way a language is used. So much so, that these expressions have become an integral part of our speech. Every day, we come across idioms and phrases that never stop to amaze us.
If you stop and think about it, some phrases have literal meanings, while some don't make sense when heard for the first time. Some are wise sayings from our ancestors, while some lack the roots. Well, knowing a bit about the origins of the idiom can help in concreting the language assembles in our mind.
In this extract, we'll talk about one such interesting idiom 'barking up the wrong tree', giving its origin and examples to use it in the right way.


► The origin of the idiom 'barking up the wrong tree' is said to have roots associated to dogs and hunting.
► Picture this. A dog chases a squirrel in the woods. The squirrel gets at a tree, and takes leaps from one branch to the other, and from one tree to the other, until it is far enough to get saved from the dog. However, the dog still barks at the same tree where the squirrel was last seen, being unaware of the fact that the squirrel has moved away.
► The idiom is an allusion to the mistake made by the dog in chasing its prey, where the dog is left barking at the base of one tree, when its quarry has escaped to another.
► The usage of this phrase dates back to the early 19th century, when dogs were used in hunting for their strong smelling sense and ability to track other animals. However, its exact first usage is debatable.

► Some of the early usages include its citation in 1832, in James Kirke Paulding's novel Westward Ho!
"Here he made a note in his book, and I begun to smoke him for one of those fellows that drive a sort of a trade of making books about old Kentuck and the western country: so I thought I'd set him barking up the wrong tree a little, and I told him some stories that were enough to set the Mississippi a-fire; but he put them all down in his book."
► The idea has a metaphorical extension to what we use today, when describing a person who's pursuing something that has a faulty logic.


► 'Barking up the wrong tree' has many meanings and interpretations, depending on the situation it's been used in, with the core being―to do or believe something that is wrong or inappropriate.

► It can mean: to make the wrong choice; to follow the wrong lead; to pursue the wrong course or track in the quest of achieving something; to follow a dead-end.
► It also interprets: wasting one's efforts by approaching something that was inappropriate at the first place.

► Well, rebuking a person for something he's not done, assailing a person for a wrong reason, etc., are also are seen as barking up the wrong tree.
► This generally happens when a person conceptually chooses a path, without thinking about all the possibilities, which eventually results in wasting all the efforts he took in accomplishing it.
► This person has limited his ability to see things, and has failed to look at the bigger picture, which can induce conflicts that could have been avoided or managed in a better way.

► So, if you're concentrating on insignificant issues, or following paths without considering a broader perspective, then you're simply barking up the tree!


► If she's planning to develop a career in acting, she's barking up the wrong tree by doing engineering.

► John believes it'll save us from the problem, but I think he's just barking up the wrong tree.
► Alice: "I'm certain that he has robbed my umbrella."
Bob: "I think you're barking up the wrong tree. He was with me at the time."

► He's barking up the wrong tree by showing his interest in Tiara. Doesn't he know she's already committed?

► Mary tried to get some bucks from her grandfather, but she was barking up the wrong tree.