Tree idioms and phrases
Let’s have a look at some phrases and idioms inspired by trees.
Out on a limb
Chances are, unless you’re a tree surgeon or horticulturist, that the word limb makes you think first of arms and legs. If you’ve ever tried to rationalize the expression out on a limb (which means ‘in a position where one is not joined or supported by anyone else’ or otherwise isolated) by substituting in bodily limbs, then you might have been rather confused. Limb here, in fact, refers to a large branch of a tree.
While limb is found with this sense as far back as the Old English text Beowulf, it is a transferred sense; the branch is called limb by analogy with the part of the body. The expression comes from the idea that the further out you are on the limb of a tree, the further you are from others – and the more precarious your position is.
Root and branch
Used to ‘express the thorough or radical nature of a process or operation’, root and branch covers the entirety of the tree, from top to bottom (or, rather, bottom to top). This idiom is found as a noun as early as the 16th century, but gained popularity (and an adverbial sense) in relation to a 1640 petition called ‘The First and Large Petition of the Citie of London and other Inhabitants thereabouts’.
This petition, which called for the abolition of the episcopal government of the Church of England, became known as the ‘Root and Branch Petition’ because of its wording: ‘That the said government, with all its dependencies, roots, and branches, be abolished’.
Up a tree / out of one’s tree / top of the tree
The position one is in, in a tree – whether or not one exploring the limbs is an option – makes quite a difference to the meaning of an idiom. To be up a tree (used chiefly in North American English) is to be ‘in a difficult situation without escape’, in the manner of ‘a hunted animal driven to take refuge in a tree’, as the OED notes. On the other hand, to be at the top of the tree is to hold the highest level of a profession or career.
Given the difficulties of being up a tree, you might assume that being out of one’s tree would be a cause for celebration. It is, however, a figurative way of suggesting that somebody is stupid or mad. Meanwhile, being out of the woods is a positive: it’s being ‘out of danger or difficulty’, although is most often found with a negative (i.e. ‘we’re not out of the woods yet’). The earliest use of this phrase, according to the OED’s current research, is found in the 1792 diary of the novelist Frances Burney. This time the opposite idiom is a complementary sense: to be in a wood is to be ‘in a difficulty, trouble, or perplexity; at a loss’ and, though less common now, was first used more than a century earlier.
Can’t see the wood (or forest) for the trees
If somebody can’t see the wood for the trees (or can’t see the forest for the trees in North American English), then they ‘fail to grasp the main issue because of over-attention to details’: this expression dates back as far as the mid-16th century. The connection between the forest and trees is brought even closer in the Spanish equivalent los árboles no dejan ver el bosque, which translates into English as ‘the trees do not see the forest’.
Also appearing the 16th century is more ways to the wood than one, meaning ‘different methods of attaining the same result’, and thus being a rather more pleasant equivalent for more ways than one to skin a cat.
Money doesn’t grow on trees
If you think that you can find coins dangling from branches, then you’re barking up the wrong tree (an idiom derived from a dog mistakenly thinking its prey is up a certain tree, when they have climbed or flown into another; incidentally, this bark is etymologically unrelated to the bark that is the outer layer of a tree). You may, indeed, have been advised by parents or guardians that money doesn’t grow on trees.
Leaving aside the fact that notes of currency do, more or less, grow on trees – or at least the paper comes from trees – it’s an idiom that pithily indicates that something is not easily available. Italians opt for the more prosaic i soldi non si trovano per strada (money can’t be found on the street), while the French equivalent conjures up a delightfully vivid image: l’argent ne se trouve pas sous les sabots d’un cheval (money isn’t found under the hooves of a horse).
The idea of things not being found in trees is also used more widely, of other entities – jobs don’t grow on trees, for example. Indeed, the earliest example of this idiom currently recorded in the OED is for mince pies, from 1669: ‘Minc’d Pyes do not grow upon every tree, But search the Ovens for them, and there they be’.
Tree idioms in other languages
In other languages, trees also loom large in phrases and idioms. In French, one is warned entre l’arbre et l’écorce il ne faut pas mettre le doigt (between the tree and the wood he should not put his finger) – that is, don’t meddle in other people’s affairs. Meanwhile, grimper à l’arbre (to climb a tree) is to be taken for a ride, or tricked.
Turning to German, if you want to express that nobody has everything their own way all of the time, you might say es ist dafür gesorgt, dass die Bäume nicht in den Himmel wachsen (it is ensured that the trees do not grow to the sky). More sympathetically, you might advise the old people are happiest left in their familiar surroundings by saying that alte Bäume soll man nicht verpflanzen (old trees should not be transplanted).
Finally, in Spanish you can describe people as making firewood from a fallen tree – hacer leña del árbol caído – as a metaphor for those who will take advantage of others.