Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Episode 189: Barking Up the Wrong Tree Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast 

Episode 189: Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Record Date: April 9, 2023

Air Date: April 12, 2023



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook

Have you ever been so sure of something, only to find out later that you were completely mistaken? Maybe there was a job you really wanted but when you turn in your application, you find out they’ve already hired someone. Or perhaps you worked up the courage to approach someone only to be rejected. It's a discouraging and frustrating feeling, like barking up the wrong tree - putting in all that effort and energy, only to realize you've been chasing something that was never there to begin with.


The idiom, "barking up the wrong tree," has been used for centuries to describe the feeling of being on the wrong track, pursuing the wrong goal, or making a mistake. It's a vivid image - a dog barking up a tree, convinced that its prey is hiding up there, but ultimately finding nothing.

Cambridge Dictionary gives us this simple definition, 


be barking up the wrong tree:

to be wrong about the reason for something or the way to achieve something

End quote 

On several sites, advice was shared along with this idiom. Essentially, they had similar sentiments... 

Barking up the wrong tree can be a useful phrase in the right circumstances. It might help someone save face or lighten the blow of being turned down. However, it could make things worse. In the case of difficult conversations or when declining an offer, it is usually best to use plain language and be as clear about your meaning as possible. Just maybe try not to do it too harshly. 

Alright, let’s get into it. 

The exact origin of this phrase is uncertain, but it is believed to have originated in the world of hunting, where dogs were used to chase prey up trees. If a dog barked at a tree that did not contain the prey, the dog was said to be "barking up the wrong tree."

There are two early uses in print I was able to find that are both from 1832. Oxford English Dictionary referenced one of these along with this definition for the word bark. 


figurative. To speak or cry out in a tone or temper that suggests the bark of a dog. to bark against (or at) the moon: to clamour or agitate to no effect. 

to bark up the wrong tree (originally U.S.): to make a mistake in one's object of pursuit or the means taken to attain it.

End quote 

This seems like a weird fit for the idiom but it has been used literally and figuratively so I’m guessing this is why it was placed along with these figurative terms for bark. 

The work Oxford English Dictionary includes for the phrase is the book Legends of the West by James Hall, published in 1832.


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Westward Ho! A Tale by James Kirke Paulding was published in 1832. I quite enjoyed the interaction found here.  


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Following this, Mr. Rainsford says he’s looking for an inn and the man informs him that all the homes in the town are inns. 

Around this same time, David Crockett wrote a book that he hoped would establish his reputation as a frontiersman and politician. He also wanted to tell his own story in his own words - and of course, improve his financial situation. His book was published in 1834 and was titled, “A narrative of the life of David Crockett, written by himself.” Here are a couple of excerpts from one of the stories he tells in the book. 


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The story continues as he chases down the bear, even confronting up close when it gets hold of one of his dogs, before he finally takes it down. He concludes his story by reflecting back on the dogs. 


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He may not have meant that second usage to be in a figurative style but it certainly feels that way to me. He was also known for being an excellent storyteller and a bit of a wordsmith at times so it’s definitely possible. 

Next, we are looking at a collection of periodicals from 1848 titled The Ladies' Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance. In this excerpt, we find a warning for men seeking a companion. It first describes the type of woman who would be a desirable mate - someone who is strong in character, confident but not boastful, unconcerned with popularity and so forth. An undesirable type of woman is then described along with the following warning.  


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Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities by William S. Walsh was published in 1892. This lists the idiom, along with a helpful description and meaning. 


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The book The Last Clue by Eugene Jones was published in 1928. It contains this fun excerpt. 


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From the Evening star, January 12, 1936, out of Washington, D.C. we find the story, 


End quote

Here is one excerpt that sort of exudes this era…  


End quote  

The song You're Barking Up The Wrong Tree by Don Woody was released in 1957 on the album, Presenting Don Woody


Well I went to my baby on bended knees

Baby, baby, baby, will you marry me?

She said: "sorry daddy but what can I say,

I found a new love just the other day"

And you're barking up the wrong tree

Well, you're barking up the wrong tree

Yes, you're barking up the wrong tree

That's what she said to me

Well I pleaded and begged nearly out of my mind

I said: "baby, baby, baby, girls are hard to find"

She said: "sorry daddy but try to understand,

I'm goin' with the cutest guy in the land"

Now, my heart was broken and it felt so blue

I said: "baby, baby, baby, does it mean we're through?"

She said: "sorry daddy but can't you take a hint?

My guy's got money, more than the mint"

Now my friend told me the other day

That my baby, baby, baby, had gone away

She took all his money and she left him flat

And let me tell you people I'm so glad that

I was barking up the wrong tree

Oh yeah, I was barking up the wrong tree. 

End quote 

This song is complete with barking noises. It’s actually kind of fun, in that swinging almost rockabilly feel. In 1957, it was merely labeled as rock.  

Now, let’s move to our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors. 

A Quick Thank You

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Modern Uses

Our first modern reference is actually sort of old. But everyone still knows and loves Snoopy. At least lots of people do, so here we go. 

You're Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Snoopy! by Charles Monroe Schulz  was published in 1980. The description merely states that it is a collection of comics featuring Snoopy. This was a reprinting. It was originally published with the title, Here Comes the April Fool! 

The song Barking up the Wrong Tree was released by The Fuzztones in 2022 on the album Encore, this song has an older feel. It is generally placed in the genre of punk garage. Here are some of the lyrics, 


You think I'm gonna give you all my love

You think I'm gonna be your little dove

Well, you're wastin' your time, baby, can't you see

I see you coming, you're barking up the wrong tree

I see you coming, you're barking up the wrong tree

Well, you're wastin' your time, baby, can't you see

End quote 

Barking Up The Wrong Tree (2015) - Board Game - BoardGameGeek provided a little bit of information. The game is for 2-5 players, takes 10-30 minutes and is designed for ages 14+. The description reads,


In Barking Up The Wrong Tree, players must try to collect the most trees, preferably of different types. To do this, they place dogs barking up the trees of their choice, and the most dogs wins the tree. Normally a player can place only one breed of dog per tree, but if a player plays a cat card, then more dogs can join the throng.

The game is played over five lively game rounds, with increasing numbers of dogs, cats and trees available each round.

Deceptively simple, this game works a treat.

End quote 

It didn’t get great reviews, so I probably won’t be trying this one. 

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong This book by Eric Barker was published in 2017 and has apparently been a big hit. Here is the synopsis, 


Wall Street Journal Bestseller

Much of the advice we’ve been told about achievement is logical, earnest…and downright wrong. In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker reveals the extraordinary science behind what actually determines success and most importantly, how anyone can achieve it. You’ll learn:

• Why valedictorians rarely become millionaires, and how your biggest weakness might actually be your greatest strength

• Whether nice guys finish last and why the best lessons about cooperation come from gang members, pirates, and serial killers

• Why trying to increase confidence fails and how Buddhist philosophy holds a superior solution

• The secret ingredient to “grit” that Navy SEALs and disaster survivors leverage to keep going

• How to find work-life balance using the strategy of Genghis Khan, the errors of Albert Einstein, and a little lesson from Spider-Man

By looking at what separates the extremely successful from the rest of us, we learn what we can do to be more like them—and find out in some cases why it’s good that we aren’t. Barking Up the Wrong Tree draws on startling statistics and surprising anecdotes to help you understand what works and what doesn’t so you can stop guessing at success and start living the life you want.

End quote 

The phrase was used in a June 11, 2020 article published on PubMed. There was no abstract available, but I did want to mention the use in a scientific journal. The title of the article is COVID-19-Related Stroke: Barking up the Wrong Tree? 

Dan, you and I have talked about how good AI is getting and also how interesting it is to see it applied in spam text messages. I found quite a few people sharing about their experiences with this and using our phrase to either respond or comment on it. Here is one example from Jason posted recently on Facebook. 


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There was also a Whatsapp number included in the message. He posted a screenshot of the message with the comment, 


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The book Barking up the Wrong Tree (Gone to the Dogs, 3) by Janice Thompson was published on January 1, 2023


Grab a puppy to snuggle and unwind with a delightful small-town mystery in book 3 of the Gone to the Dogs series.


Inquisitive, detail-oriented, Veterinarian Kristin Keller prides herself on winning over any dog. But has this self-proclaimed dog whisperer finally met her match in a Sheltie named Remington who has just won the Texas state agility course competition? The champion pooch is acting out of sorts—almost as if he is not the same dog. Has he, by chance, been switched out with another dog just before the next big competition? Kristin and the other Lone Star employees will do anything to help the Atkinson family figure out this mystery surrounding their beloved Remington.

End quote 

Wrap Up

We all have moments like this, when we realize that we've been barking up the wrong tree. Maybe it's a project at work that we've been pouring our energy into, only to find out that it's not what the boss wanted. Maybe it's a personal relationship that we thought was going somewhere, but turns out to be a dead end. Whatever the situation, barking up the wrong tree is a reminder to take a step back, reassess our goals, and make sure we're on the right track.


That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, send us an email:, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we posed this scenario to our Patrons:

Congrats! You have won the grand prize! You get one of these for a year:

A professional driver to take you where ever you wanted to go


A personal chef to make all your meals for you

There was a very clear winner among our Patrons…

Receiving 75% of the votes was Personal Driver.


Jan said, 


I like to cook, so I wouldn't want to give that up. I also like to travel and nap. What better way to do both at once than with a driver?

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Emily said,


I like driving, though having free time on my commute would be nice. But I’m only an Okay cook, so I chose that one.

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Just like Jan, I love cooking. Though it would be nice, at times, to have a chef. But I don't love driving. And when I'm traveling, I don't love parking. So a driver would be my pick. 


I love to cook though I sometimes feel like it takes too much time. However, I really don’t like driving unless it’s for a road trip. So I’d go with the driver as well. 


If you want to join our polls, head over to where Patrons at all levels can participate in our weekly silly polls that mean absolutely nothing and aren’t even scientifically valid. But they are fun to talk about!



Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember, 


Words belong to their users. 

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