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The meaning and origin of the expression: You can't see the wood for the trees

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You can't see the wood for the trees

What's the meaning of the phrase 'You can't see the wood for the trees'?

By focussing on detail you lose perspective and miss what is important.

What's the origin of the phrase 'You can't see the wood for the trees'?

You can't see the wood for the treesThis proverbial saying is first found in Sir Thomas More's Confutacion of Tyndals Answere, 1533, in which More argued the case against the English cleric Robert Barnes, who he considered to be a heretic:

[Original Middle English text]

And as he myght tell vs, that of Poules chyrch we may well se the stones, but we can not se the chyrce. And then we may well tell hym agayne, that he can not se the wood for the trees.

[Modern translation]

He might tell us that of Paul’s Church we may well see the stones, but we cannot see the church. And then we may well tell him again that he cannot see the wood for the trees.

John Heywood included the saying in his 1546 glossary A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the englishe tongue:

An olde saied sawe, itche and ease, can no man please.
Plentie is no deyntie [dainty]. ye see not your owne ease.
I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.

Heywood's meaning is that, by having so many good things, people can miss the fact that life as a whole is good. In more recent times people might be advised not to worry about detail when life in general is good by being told that their concerns are "First-world problems" or, in Australia, they might be told "Don't sweat the small stuff".

See also: the List of Proverbs.