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The phrase “barking up the wrong tree” seems to be an American expression in origin, though the exact first usage is somewhat debated. As a general expression, or sentiment, it certainly stems from the tradition of using trained dogs to hunt game, such as rabbits, foxes, or squirrels. A dog who was barking up the wrong tree would be one that believes the game is somewhere that it is not; similarly, a person doing so would be incorrect in some assumption or action he or she is making. The first usage of the phrase in print seems to be from 1832 in James Kirk Paulding’s novel Westward Ho!.
In general terms, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” essentially acts as a metaphor for a person who is acting on a mistaken assumption, based on the actions of hunting dogs. Dogs were often trained to track and pursue various types of game, such as rabbits and squirrels. These dogs would typically drive an animal to or up a tree, at which point the dog would stand at the base of the tree and bark to indicate which tree the huntsmen could find the animal. If the animal had leaped to another tree, however, but the dog remained, then it would be quite literally barking up the wrong tree.
This idea was then extended metaphorically to describe a person who was “barking up the wrong tree” by pursuing an idea founded in faulty logic or understanding. A person who is looking for corruption in a government agency, where there is none, would be labeled as “barking up the wrong tree.” The term can also be applied to a number of different settings, such as to someone who is flirting with a disinterested person, someone sending applications to a company that is not hiring, or someone researching incorrect information.
Earliest usage of “barking up the wrong tree” in print seems to be a 1832 novel called Westward Ho! by American author James Kirk Paulding. Whether the phrase was already in popular usage prior to this is difficult to determine, but it did seem to become quite popular in print afterward. Numerous texts, including books, magazine articles, and even transcripts from the US House of Representatives, show the phrase being used throughout the years immediately following Paulding’s novel. It is likely that “barking up the wrong tree” was already a phrase in general or colloquial use prior to Paulding’s usage, but the use in a literary work served to increase its popularity.