“Barking up the Wrong Tree” – Phrase Origin

The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” has been with us for hundreds of years, and everyone seems to use it all the time. But where did this phrase come from, and why do we use it today?

The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” originated in the US in the early 19th century. It was originally used to describe hunter dogs that were barking at a certain tree when in fact, the raccoons they were chasing had escaped to a different tree. Today, the phrase means chasing something in vain.

In this article, I’ll discuss the meaning of the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” so that we can understand the metaphorical symbolism of this phrase. Furthermore, I’ll delve into the origin of the phrase and the history behind it.

“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” Meaning

The best thing about idioms is that they allow you to express nuanced meanings through funny, highly metaphorical, and symbolical phrases that have a real historical context. The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” represents this perfectly. Not only is this phrase amusing, but it also conveys an interesting thought that ordinary speech can’t express.

There are two meanings “barking up the wrong tree” conveys, so let’s dissect those now. 

Disappointment Due to False Assumptions

The first meaning of the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” can be seen as setting yourself up for disappointment by expecting something that will not happen based on false assumptions or misinformation. If one was attempting to achieve a goal but ended up going in the wrong direction instead, they would be said to be “barking up the wrong tree.”

Imagine a group of scientists trying to find a cure for some terrible disease. They spend years researching, brainstorming, and developing a possible cure. Once the cure’s ready for testing, they find out it doesn’t work. 

After weeks of analyzing their every step, they realize that they have completely misunderstood the nature of the disease they were trying to cure. The scientists had misinterpreted their initial findings and had been “barking up the wrong tree” all along.

Though they thought they were working towards finding an effective cure-all, it turns out that their research was actually heading in a completely different direction. It is only now that they are realizing this mistake after investing so much time into something that ultimately led to nothing.

Some Example Sentences 

Let’s see some examples where “barking up the wrong tree” carries this meaning:

  • Mary thinks all the issues with her boyfriend will be resolved after a nice dinner. I think she’s “barking up the wrong tree” there, as a pleasant night out isn’t enough to heal the broken trust in their relationship.
  • I thought the surgery would finally relieve me of my back pain, but I guess I was barking up the wrong tree. It turns out I have an autoimmune disease that causes chronic pain.
  • Jonathan thinks we’d make a perfect couple, but he’s just barking up the wrong tree, honestly. He’s one of those charming guys who seems to think he can get any girl he wants. While I appreciate his attention, I don’t feel the same way about him. 
  • I spent three years writing this book only to find out my hypothesis was wrong. I was barking up the wrong tree this whole time!

When Actions Don’t Produce Desired Results

The second meaning of the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is about the action somebody undertakes when they believe they are pursuing something that will bring them success. Unfortunately, this action actually leads them down a path of disappointment. 

In this sense, barking up the wrong tree means that you were trying your best to achieve your goal (you were barking), but it led you nowhere, unfortunately (it was the wrong tree). 

Let’s imagine you enrolled at a university you really like. You studied really hard to pass the entrance exam. Soon, however, you realize that your chosen degree program is not that interesting, and there are very few career choices that will be available to you upon graduating.

You thought studying hard for this degree would bring you success, but you’ve made a false assumption, leading to disappointment. In this situation, you were “barking up the wrong tree” the entire time. You put so much effort into making your dream come true, but it turned out that dream didn’t produce the results you wanted. 

Some Example Sentences

Some examples of this phrase when used in this context are:

  • I spent five years teaching my students, but I was barking up the wrong tree in the end. Despite years of hard work and dedication on both our parts, most of them ended up having difficulty finding employment in their chosen field of study.
  • John and Jennine were together for six years before they broke up–they were barking up the wrong tree, after all.
  • I worked in that company for ten years hoping for a really good promotion to the managing level, but they refused to promote me. I was barking up the wrong tree for years.

Be Careful How You Use the Phrase “Barking up the Wrong Tree” 

There are two things you should know about using the phrase “barking up the wrong tree,” especially if English isn’t your first language. Like many idioms, “barking up the wrong tree” is considered informal language. Avoid using this phrase in formal writing or situations. 

“Barking up the wrong tree” is predominantly used in progressive tenses–past, present, or future. In other words, we should use the phrase:

  • Was/were barking
  • Have/has been barking 
  • Am/are/is barking
  • Will be barking

There are some rare instances when you’ll hear something like, “Johnny barked up the wrong tree when he asked his father for money.” However, these expressions aren’t that common.

Lastly, “barking up the wrong tree” doesn’t mean attacking somebody for doing something. Although it might sound like that because of the word “barking,” the phrase only means we’re doing something futile.

“Barking Up the Wrong Tree” Origin

Now that we know the meaning and use of the phrase “barking up the wrong tree,” it’s time we see why it has that meaning today. But first, why is it about a barking dog?

Dogs are viewed as animals controlled by their emotions. If they get overexcited, they can’t control themselves. Metaphorically speaking, humans are usually the same. When we feel overwhelmed with emotion, it’s easy for us to get carried away, only to become disappointed due to false assumptions.

On the other hand, “the wrong tree” is also a perfect symbol because it represents that unreachable aspect we’re trying to arrive at but never do. This tree may also represent people who’re unsuitable or unwilling to do something.

Coon Hunting 

In the 19th century, raccoon hunting (or coon hunting) was a popular pastime among many people in the US. These people would have specially bred dogs, called coonhounds, to chase raccoons up the trees. However, since dogs can’t climb trees, they’d just stand at the base and bark, waiting for their masters to show up and kill the raccoons.

In the meantime, raccoons would often escape to other trees using tree branches without the dogs noticing. So, barking up the wrong time was a true and literal expression throughout the 19th century. Over time, it gained the idiomatic meaning we know by today. 

Only, nowadays, instead of dogs, we’re those who’re metaphorically barking up some tree that represents certain situations. Raccoons stand for a futile effort on our part to reach some goal.

Final Thoughts

The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is an idiom that means making a mistake or pursuing something that won’t yield the desired results. 

The origin of the phrase came from the early 19th century US when raccoon hunting was one of the favorite pastimes in the Southern US. People there would use coonhounds to chase and catch raccoons. When the raccoons escaped up the trees, dogs would bark at them from the ground. While the dogs barked, raccoons would escape to other trees.