I’ve searched everywhere! (Words and phrases for looking for things)

JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Getty

by Kate Woodford

What did you last look for? Was it your phone, a key or maybe a book? If you’re anything like me, it was probably a pen that works! Most of us search for something from time to time so let’s take a look at the language of searching.

A number of words and phrases describe someone looking for one particular thing in a place where there are many things. They suggest that someone moves things around in the attempt to find what they are looking for. For example, there are the slightly informal phrasal verbs root around and poke around: I was just rooting around in my drawer, hoping to find a red pen. / If you poke around in that cupboard, you’ll probably find some glue. The verb rummage is used with the same meaning: She rummaged in her bag and pulled out a small, green bottle. / It was a video of a bear rummaging through a pile of trash.

Meanwhile, if you turn a place upside down, you search every bit of that place in order to find something, often leaving it very untidy: We turned the apartment upside down but we still couldn’t find the letter.

A verb with an extra meaning is ‘rifle’. If you rifle through somewhere, you search it quickly, often in order to steal something: Someone had obviously rifled through the drawers.

Some verbs describe someone searching a particular place or thing to find an item. For example, if you trawl, you often search through a large quantity of information in order to find what you want: The software is used to trawl for information on the Internet. If you scout for something, you look all over an area for it: I’ve been scouting around for somewhere to live. Other verbs suggest that you are looking for a particular thing. For example, if police or detectives comb an area, they search it very carefully in order to find weapons or other evidence: Police are combing the area for clues. If you forage, you go from place to place, looking for food. Wild and foraged food features prominently on the menu.

I’ll finish with two colourful idioms. If something is extremely difficult to find, often because there are so many things to look through, you might say it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. (A needle is a very thin piece of metal that is used for sewing and a haystack is a large pile of dried grass in a field!) There are so many pieces of paper here – it’s like finding a needle in a haystack! Meanwhile, if a search is a complete waste of time, often because the person or thing being searched for does not exist, we may call it a wild-goose chase. What, I wonder, are the equivalent idioms in your language?




65 thoughts on “I’ve searched everywhere! (Words and phrases for looking for things)

  1. Wiz lee

    that was excellent, Kate. Thanks! By the way, can you post some relating or frequently used in the writing section of Cambridge exams? I’m extremely nervous about my CPE next month and it’s now or never to break my age barricade(11 yrs old) to pass it. I’ll be really grateful.

    1. anggabot

      why do many people/student take CPE exam in Cambridge? is that a requirement? I have ever seen some examples of CPE on youtube and i think we have got nervous if we do that.

      1. Wiz lee

        Well, it’s for academic reasons but I don’t know if it’s a necessity or not. Oh and I’m an exception. CPE is for uni students and up. Do not get another kid to take this test just because I am.

      1. Alexandre

        “Like finding a needle in a haystack”!!! lol. Wow, here in Brazil we have an idiom with the same meaning, literally!!! It would be: “Achar uma agulha no palheiro”. Congrats on the article! Very instructive!!!

  2. Mateusz

    Dear Kate Woodford,

    Thank you for combing the immensity of ‘the English Language Treasure House’ and sharing the colourful expressions in meaningful contexts with us all.)

    Incidentally, ‘Needle in the haystack’ translates word for word into Polish. The language, where, to describe a hopeless chase – e.g. after sb or sth long gone – people might say ‘to chase the wind in the fields’.

    Kind regards,


    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you, Mateusz! How interesting that Polish also has this phrase. I love ‘chase the wind in the fields’! That’s so descriptive!

  3. Lore

    I found that article useful and interesting. In croatian languange there is a similar idiom to finding a needle in the haystack 🙂


    Thanks for all your posts! They’re always helpful, especially in my 15 in a school with advanced english) And about a needle in a haystack… in Russia we use a word for word translation of it.

    1. Wiz lee

      I’m from Taiwan so I can explain these to you, kate, and everyone looking here! 大海撈針 is finding a needle the sea while 徒勞之舉 are things that have no use and serves no purpose, therefore a waste of energy.

  5. Duda

    Hi Kate,
    your article was very informative, as usual. In Serbian we have an exact equivalent of the phrase “like finding a needle in a haystack” and it sounds like this: “kao da tražimo iglu u plaštu sena” 🙂

  6. Henrique

    In Portuguese (PT-BR) we say the exactly phrase:
    Like finding a needle in a haystack
    Como procurar uma agulha em um palheiro


    like = como / finding = procurar / a = uma / needle = agulha / in a = em um / haystack = palheiro;


  7. Oduor Oliech

    Thanks Kate. Very helpful post and comments. I love the translation from Indonesia. Languages all over the world have things in common.

  8. Kate Woodford

    Thanks for all the lovely responses. I had no idea the needle in a haystack idiom existed in so many languages. Fascinating!

  9. gfarid

    I trawl through internet and comb for a good website but all wide goose chase. Then i rummaged books to find good word but all in vain. To find this website was like finding needle in haystack. Finally iam on a best site after all that poking around.

  10. Thanks for this post. by the way in México we’ve the same idiom “es cómo buscar una aguja en un pajar” also for “turn a place upside down” we say “Ya puse todo el lugar de cabeza”

  11. Thanks a lot, Kate, nice article! And yes, in Russian we, too, look for a needle in a haystack! And, just like you other folks here, we sometimes turn the place upside down. Though when searching thoroughly through all things looking for a particular one we literally “dig” through all things.

    BTW, in English you can also “rake” through things looking for something, can’t you? Just popped up from my personal “corpus”, he-he. Though in Russian we literally say “to comb through”.

    1. Kate Woodford

      Hi Kostya! Nice to hear from you and interesting that Russian shares these phrases with English. And yes, you’re absolutely right – you can rake through or rake about in a drawer/cupboard, etc. meaning you search there for something there. I thought it a little less common that some of the other words I’ve included here, but it certainly exists. Best wishes to you!

  12. Hi Dear Kate! Could you please help me to understand what this sentence means: it was a video of a bear rummaging through a pile of trash. Thanks for your teaching me. Jean Baptiste from Rwanda Kigali city 😁

  13. Kate Woodford

    Hi Jean Baptiste! I’ll certainly try! A bear is a big, furry wild animal. To rummage is to look for something by moving things around in a careless, untidy way. A pile is a big collection or mass of things and trash is rubbish or waste material. So the bear was, I assume, looking for food in a pile of rubbish. I hope that helps. Best wishes to you.

  14. Gloria

    I do not know what is more interesting, the post itself or the comments which add more information based on the experience of foreign students with English -and some natives further clarifying concepts.
    Thank you so much for this wonderful blog!

  15. Maria

    Hi Kate! Thanks for your articles! In Russian, if someone looks for something that does not exist or cannot be found for some reasons, we say, that he or she is searching for the yesterday (“ищет вчерашний день”) (and we can add “it’s gone”).

  16. Maryem Salama

    The needle in a haystack idiom is used in my language too, and some others as well, but we have something I am not sure whether or not exist in your language or any other language. It is the using of a verb means to search for lice in hair by hands to kill them by nails, and it is used in different contexts, mainly in searching for very small things in wide places. I apologize if the image makes you feel sick.

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