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Can't see the wood for the trees.

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Stefan Linnemann
943276.  Tue Oct 02, 2012 9:52 pm Reply with quote

Rob Brydon talked about this proverb on the Journeys episode. According to him, it means one is not seeing the substance wood for the trees, but he is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike right. (Thank you, Douglas, and we miss you.)

The phrase exists in Dutch as well, and given the proximity of our two nations, it's unlikely the meanings are very different in our languages. But in Dutch, the word for wood means wood as a collective of trees (bos), the substance wood has a different word (hout).

So it means: you can't see the entirety of the wood for the trees, or: you're losing yourself in details at the cost of an overview.

HTH, HAND,
Stefan.

 
'yorz
943283.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 12:13 am Reply with quote

Shouldn't this have gone into the Green Room?

 
MinervaMoon
943284.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 12:20 am Reply with quote

He did get that absolutely backwards so far "bigger picture" and "smaller picture". It's because the word "wood", sing., can mean "woods" or "woodland", but without definite context can be taken to mean the fibrous tree material.

 
exnihilo
943321.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 3:54 am Reply with quote

Is "can't see the forest for the trees" not the more usual form of the expression in American English? Which removes the ambiguity.

I quite like the ambiguity though, in proverbs generally. I remember an argument with a flatmate at university about "waste not, want not" which he contended just meant don't waste what you don't want, and I said meant don't waste and you won't want.

 
CB27
943461.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 1:35 pm Reply with quote

I agree with your flatmate, that's how I always understood it.

 
Jenny
943472.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 2:01 pm Reply with quote

On the other hand, I agree with exnihilo - his explanation is how I have always understood it: if you don't waste, you won't want (in the sense of being in want rather than in the sense of desiring).

 
PDR
943475.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 2:07 pm Reply with quote

Jenny wrote:
On the other hand, I agree with exnihilo - his explanation is how I have always understood it: if you don't waste, you won't want (in the sense of being in want rather than in the sense of desiring).


[mode = AOL]

Mee Two

[/mode]

PDR

 
exnihilo
943491.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 4:33 pm Reply with quote

Absolutely. He saw it as a kind of exhortation to charity, 'don't waste stuff you don't want' but to me it was always clearly and unambiguously if you don't waste stuff you want go wanting. A penny saved is a penny earned, after all!

 
'yorz
943495.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 4:50 pm Reply with quote

I understood it ex's way.

 
CB27
943509.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:34 pm Reply with quote

TBH I never thought much about it, and you have to remember that English was a second/third language to me, so interpretations of some phrases are based on what I originally thought they meant. In this case, I assumed it meant that if you have anything left over that you don't want, don't waste it, as in either save it for another time, give it to someone else or recycle, which I thought was what ex's flatmate meant :)

 
'yorz
943512.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:41 pm Reply with quote

How do you interpret, "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!", CB? (Richard III)

 
CB27
943515.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:48 pm Reply with quote

In the context of the play I assume it's simply a play on words to show how anything can become worthless in the right/wrong circumstances. I wasn't aware there were different interpretations :)

 
'yorz
943518.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:53 pm Reply with quote

I was taught that it was more disbelief than a desperate offer:
"A horse? A horse? I lose my kingdom for want of a horse?!"

 
exnihilo
943519.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:53 pm Reply with quote

That was exactly what my flatmate meant, but that was based on not recognising the 'older' meaning of want.

 
MinervaMoon
943521.  Wed Oct 03, 2012 5:54 pm Reply with quote

I would say it means that anything (e.g., a horse) can have a LOT of worth in the right/wrong circumstances.

 

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