Glossary Home Idioms

Barking up the wrong tree

‘Barking up the wrong tree’ is an English-language idiom. It’s used to describe a situation in which someone is pursuing an incorrect assumption.

‘Barking up the wrong tree’ originated from the practice of using hunting dogs to track down animals, like raccoons, and other prey, in trees. When the dog chose the wrong tree, they were described as “barking up the wrong tree.” Today, the phrase is less commonly used as it is starting to become cliche.

Barking up the wrong tree meaning


Meaning of Barking up the wrong tree

The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is used when someone is pursing a line of thought that’s completely wrong.

They’re seeking out information that’s incorrect or information that they’re going to use for an incorrect purpose. Someone who is “barking up the wrong tree” doesn’t know that they’re on the wrong track. Like the hunting dogs around whom this phrase was coined, they are single-mindedly pursuing their prey.

When to Use Barking up the wrong tree

It’s possible to use “barking up the wrong tree” in a wide variety of situations. But, it’s most commonly used among friends, family members, and close colleagues. It’s easy to imagine how in the wrong situation, this phrase could be interpreted quite negatively. If it was used at a business meeting or was directed at someone who doesn’t know the speaker well or is in a subordinate position, it could be insulting and demeaning. It’s also very likely that using the phrase to describe a superior’s actions or plans would result in a negative consequence.

For example, consider the different tones the phrase would take depending on whether or not it’s directed at a friend or superior. One might say, “Look, John, I really think you’re barking up the wrong tree here, and you should move on. There are other fish in the sea.” This casual statement is easy to accept in a social situation. But, if the same phrase was directed at someone’s boss, it might come across as though the speaker is trying to undermine their authority.

Example Sentences With Barking up the wrong tree

  • You have to stop barking up all these wrong trees. You’re getting no where.
  • She’s always barking up the wrong trees. I can’t stop her.
  • They’ll only learn they’re barking up the wrong tree in time. We can’t help them.
  • My boss is barking up the wrong tree with this new plan. But I don’t think I can stop him.


Origin of Barking up the wrong tree

The idiom “Barking up the wrong tree” can be traced back to the practice of using hunting dogs to find prey hidden in trees. When they chose the wrong tree, then they were literally “barking up the wrong tree.” The first known example of the phrase in print can be found in Westward Ho! by James Kirke Paulding. Here, he writes the following lines:

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.

It’s unclear whether or not this is truly the first iteration of the phrase in print, but it’s certainly the best-known early example. It was around this time that the idiom started catching on in what was then contemporary American society. It can be found in several different newspaper clippings from the same period. One good example, as noted by Phrases, can be found in The Adams Sentinel from March 1834. It reads:

Gineral you are barkin’ up the wrong tree this time, for I jest see that rackoon jump to the next tree, and afore this he is a mile off in the woods.

After this, the term became widely spread within western of the period. For example, Legends of the West by James Hall. In this publication, he wrote:

It doesn’t take a Philadelphia lawyer to tell that the man who serves the master one day, and the enemy six, has just six chances out of seven to go to the devil. You are barking up the wrong tree, Johnson.

Another similar example can be found in Sketches of David Crockett. It reads:

I told him that he reminded me of the meanest thing on God’s earth, an old coon dog barking up the wrong tree.

This last quote, and the previous, date from 1833.

FAQs

Is “barking up the wrong tree” a cliché phrase?

It is somewhat cliché, although not quite as overused as some other idioms. It’s still possible to use this phrase in one’s writing. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the fact that some readers might encounter it and not feel as though the writer is being as creative as they could’ve been.

Do writers still use “barking up the wrong tree?”

Sometimes. It’s possible to find this phrase in all types of literature, but contemporary short fiction and novels are the most common. It might be used within dialogue or within a narrator’s thoughts.

Is “barking up the wrong tree” an interesting phrase?

Depending on how it’s used, “barking up the wrong tree” can be used interestingly. Some writers enjoy using it while others don’t. There are other ways to describe the same phenomenon.

Why were dogs “barking up the wrong tree?”

The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is related to hunting dogs who mistakenly scented on the wrong tree. They stayed in one place, barking at the tree till they’re owners analyzed the situation. If they were wrong, they were barking up the wrong tree.

Is “barking up the wrong tree” a metaphor?

The phrase itself is an idiom, but it’s used as a metaphor to describe another situation. For example, “She was barking up the wrong tree trying to get her best friend to fall in love with her.”


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