When I used this expression the other day at work, I thought it must be one of those fairly modern idiom. I was quite surprised when I checked around for today's UK blog and found that the saying thought to be around 500 years old.
Firstly though what is it's meaning?
"Can't see the woods for the trees" or sometimes used as "can't see the forest for the trees" is a phrase used on both sides of the pond, as well as the other side of the world UK, America and Australia). If someone can't see the wood for the trees, they are unable to understand what is the big picture because they are giving too much attention to details.
"Mark is so focused on product details that he can't see the forest for the trees when it comes to the overall needs of the company."
Also reminds of "don't sweat the small stuff (things)"
So where does the phrase come from?
UNABLE TO SEE THE WOODS FOR THE TREES - From "Heavens to Betsy" by Charles Earle Funk (Harper & Row, New York, 1955): "Too beset by petty things to appreciate the greatness or grandeur; too wrapped up in details to gain a view of the whole. In America we are likely to use the plural, 'woods,' or possibly to substitute 'forest,' but 'wood' is the old form and is preferable.
Actually, the saying is at least five hundred years old, and probably a century or two could be added to that, for it must have been long been in use to have been recorded in 1546 in John Heywood's 'A dialogue Conteynyng the Nomber in Effect of all the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue.' He wrote 'Plentie is no deinte, ye see not your owne ease. I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.' And a few years later, in 1583, Brian Melbancke, in 'Philotimus: the Warre Betwixt Nature and Fortune,' wrote: 'Thou canst not or wilt not see wood for trees.'
The saying has cropped up repeatedly from then to the present, becoming, in fact, more frequent with the passing years."
I also thought I'd share with you a a video I made some time ago, about my England, the sound on Youtube sounds a little like it's underwater, but I hope you enjoy it, and for those people from Across the Pond I hope it brings back memories.