Root and branch (Idioms with nature words, Part 3)

The canopy of a banyan tree seen from below, with the sun shining through the leaves.
Matt Anderson Photography/Moment/GettyImages

by Kate Woodford

Today, in the third and final post of our nature idioms series, we look at idioms that feature the words tree, bush and hedge and also words for parts of these things, such as root and branch.

If you’re barking up the wrong tree, you’re taking the wrong approach to solving a problem and it won’t work: If they think they can attract more people to the café by painting it a different colour, they’re barking up the wrong tree. They need to start serving better food!

A type of tree that features in a nice saying is the oak. We say Great / Tall oaks from little acorns grow to express the idea that even very large and successful projects may start out simply: You never know where this might end. Great oaks from little acorns grow.

Moving on to the tree’s branch, someone who holds out or extends an olive branch does or says something to show that they want to end a disagreement with someone: He appeared to be holding out an olive branch to the president.

Root and branch means ‘complete, including all aspects’. It is often used in phrases about change: He supported root and branch reform of the church. / It was a root and branch review of policy.

‘Root’ features in two other nice idioms. If you put down roots in the place where you live, you make new friends there so that you feel connected to it: She’s lived in the village long enough to put down roots. If an idea or belief takes root somewhere, it starts to be accepted and spread there: The idea took root and soon, there was a growing network of activists.

‘Leaf’ features in the simile shake like a leaf, meaning ‘to shake a lot, because you are cold or afraid’: Poor Lily was still in shock and shaking like a leaf.

Thinking about trees collectively, if you are not out of the woods yet, you are still having problems, even though a situation has improved slightly: We’re starting to make a profit, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet.

Meanwhile, someone who can’t see the UK wood / US forest for the trees is unable to get a general understanding of a situation or piece of work because they are worrying about small aspects of it: When you’ve spent so long working on an essay, it’s hard to see the wood for the trees.

If you don’t beat around / about the bush, you start to talk about a difficult subject immediately and directly, without trying to make what you are saying more acceptable: Let’s not beat about the bush. We need to make more money.

We’ll end with a rather unkind idiom. If someone looks untidy and dirty, you might say informally they look as if they have been dragged through a hedge backwards: He’d clearly made no effort with his appearance and looked as if he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards!

That concludes our nature idioms series. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learned some new idioms.

15 thoughts on “Root and branch (Idioms with nature words, Part 3)

    1. Yuti

      Don’t be greedy! A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
      Spend wisely! Money doesn’t grow on trees.

      We’ve all received this advice at some point in our lives!

      1. Marie

        I would like to know, why do programmers use nature words like root and branch as professional terms.

      2. Mohammad

        Great idioms and have brilliant indications and there are similar ones like them in different cultures and languages.
        * I wish i could find friends who are ready to chat in English just to practice our language and to exchange useful ideas because I like reading books in English and make use of smart content.
        Thanks a lot.

  1. pyyang

    There’s a Chinese colloquial saying that’s exactly the same meaning as barking up the wrong tree–like a dog barking at the train! 狗吠火車!

  2. I love this page. I find idioms one of the most interesting subjects in learning a language. Finding the equivalent in other languages is an enriching experience as well. I had not heard most of the idioms in this blog. Thanks, Kate Woodford!

  3. nga

    after searching, the meaning of word ” barking” in the first idiom is regarding to the dog rather than the tree, So u can give me some feedback for my searching or u should search well before publishing this…, it makes me feel afraid for the rest information.

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