forest, wood and woods

I am supposed to be giving the 'How America Saved the English Language' talk in Ashford at the moment, but it had to be cancel(l)ed because the organi{s/z}er isn't well. I hope it will be rescheduled--but not on a day like today when the Brighton-Ashford train journey/trip would have involved replacement bus service (a hated phrase in BrE, if ever there was one).

So, I dip into the inbox to find a suitable blogging task, and out comes this from Ben S:
I was watching the clip episode for QI and in it Rob Brydon explains the phrase "missing the wood for the trees" REDACTED FANCIFUL ACCOUNT OF ORIGIN OF THIS PHRASE. [Lesson: check any facts that appear on QI. They may be Quite Interesting, but they're not always true. --ed.] But, as an American, I've always heard "missing the forest for the trees"
Hey, speaking of QI, I was on the (orig. AmE) radio/(dated BrE) wireless this past week with Stephen Fry (the host of QI) on Fry's English Delight. By the time you read this, it may not be available for listening-again, but here's the link to the episode. The most very frustrating thing about this program(me) is that it is about spelling. My job is to talk about spelling reform in the early days of the USA. So, to introduce me, Fry announces 'That's Lynn, without an E.' Watch forty-something years of trying to get people to spell my name right go straight down the toilet. Thanks, Steven! (But much fun to be on the program(me).)

Wait, what? You wanted me to talk about the phrase Ben asked about? Oh, all right then. Missing the wood for the trees is the main BrE version of this phrase and missing the forest for the trees is the main AmE version, as shown in this entry from Cambridge Dictionaries Online:
Ben sent me a long message about this because Brydon's tale about the meaning of this phrase treated it as if the wood in it referred to (AmE) lumber/(more BrE) timber--which is also the usual way that an American would understand wood without an s on the end. But that's what was wrong with Brydon's story. The BrE wood here is woods in AmE (AmE kinda-sorta. There's more to say.)

When talking about tree-filled land, BrE has woods as well as wood. Preschools here are filled with children singing If you go down in the woods today, you're sure of a big surprise. (Actually, most people these days sing If you go down to the woods today. Better Half has just declared the original lyric obscene.) But one hears a lot more of wood as part of place-names in BrE than AmE (e.g. Bromwich Wood). And one hears it in as a common noun to refer to foresty places. Here are some examples from the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBe), which strike me for their general morbidness (I've 'retouched' one of the lines to remove an irrelevant reference to a sexual act in a wood pile):

Now, I had assumed that Americans use the word forest more than the British do, because I often hear this wood where I would have said forest. But that's not the case--checking a few corpora, the British seem to use forest just as much as Americans. (Since one of those searches was case-sensitive, I don't think it's a case of place-names throwing the numbers.) I had this impression because if I were to Americani{s/z}e some of the sentences above by replacing the BrE wood, I'd put in forest. But that's because of the a. If I were allowed to change the whole noun phrase to be natural to my AmE brain, I'd change a wood to the woods. Now, it may seem strange to have the the there, since that's a definite determiner,* and it implies that we know which woods we're talking about. But it's really not that strange to use the when talking about geographical place-types, since we talk about people liking to swim in the sea or go hiking in the mountains, even if we don't know (or if it doesn't matter) which ones they do it in. To be clear: one can say in the woods in BrE. But since one can also say in a wood in BrE, the British don't say in the woods as much as Americans do.

Back to the 'for the trees' proverb: it is older than old, but in John Heywood's Proverbes (1546) it is given as ye cannot see the wood for trees. The forest version goes back at least into the 19th century in the US. I can only presume that it came to be preferred over the wood version because that version is confusing in AmE, where it would pretty much have to be woods. But, as Brydon, in his misunderstanding of the phrase on QI, demonstrated, it's not just ambiguous to Americans--since wood has more than one meaning in both countries. (If you'd like to see the discussion on QI, it seems to be on YouTube in several places. Probably illegally, so I'm not going to link to it, because those links eventually fail.  But should you want to search for it, it should be in (BrE) series 10, episode 3 'Journeys'.)

* As long as I'm talking about definite determiners, I can mention that I'm the 'Ask a Linguist' linguist in the current issue of the lovely new-ish language magazine Babel. The topic there is the the (or lack of it) in the phrase in (the) hospital. I've covered that before here, but I cover it better in the magazine--which I really recommend for anyone who's interested in language. Subscription info is here.


  1. As an anecdote about my understanding, I always thought that "woods" was something like a mass noun, but "wood" was a specific place. So "go down to the woods" means something like "go into a wooded area of inderterminate size, location etc.", but "to the wood" means "to a specific location somehow bounded and of known extent, covered in trees".

    But that's an anecdote and not data.

    (An on that note, thank you for providing data! I do love your blog.)

  2. Heh. I was just watching the newest Doc Martin episode online last night, and Martin and Louisa are lost in a place with trees, and Louisa says, "Now we're in the middle of a forest," (or something like that) and the ever-pedantic Martin says, "It's not a forest, it's a wood!"

    I was wondering if that was your inspiration when I saw the tweet about the blog. :-)

    1. Interesting! I (BrE by birth) always thought the forest/wood distinction was a matter of size, so you could perhaps do a ranking, e.g. copse-wood-forest.

  3. I concur with the BrE size distinction. A forest is large (often regional as in New Forest), but a wood is small, local.

  4. I mostly agree with Phoebe that as a BrE speaker, I'd distinguish between wood/s and forest by size, but I think it's a bit more than that.

    To me, a wood is a fairly friendly place, whereas a forest is not only bigger but wilder as well - something that you'd find in the highlands of Scotland or even further afield.

  5. Although I recognize the meaning of wood and woods, I think of wood as the material, and have to think twice to imagine it as a forest.

    Stephen Fry, as a scientist and historian and linguist, is a fine entertainer. He also pronounces Houston as Hooo-stun.

  6. I always say can't see the wood for the trees, never miss. I note that the OED only lists the see version.

    There's nothing obscene in the words of Teddy Bears' Picnic
    If you go down in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise
    If you go down in the woods today you'd better go in disguise
    For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain, because
    Today's the day the Teddy Bears have their picnic

    Better Half may be thinking of a chanted dialogue that begins To the woods! To the woods!.

    It seems to be always neck of the woods, not neck of the wood. And I'd say mushrooming in the woods as a generalisation — in the wood could only refer to a specific, definite wood. The forest can be either generic or specific.

    The legal definition of an English forest is somewhere that only the King can hunt in. That's why forests are so big. And that's why the odd forest doesn't have many trees. Of course, all the forests identified since the Middle Ages are huge and full of trees and don't have monarchs hunting in them.

  7. The forest can be either generic or specific.

    A curious parallel with going to hospital / school etc. (For me, at least.)

    • Going to the woods is like going to hospital / to school / to prison

    • Going to the wood is like going to the hospital / to the school / to the prison.

    But going to the forest can be either like going to hospital or going to the hospital.

  8. For many years, I (Australian) assumed the expression "can't see the wood for the trees" had the opposite meaning of "can't see the forest for the trees".

    That is, whereas the latter means "can't see the big picture because of a fixation on specific details", I assumed the former meant "can't see specific details because of a fixation on the big picture" (wood being the stuff trees are made from). Obviously I was aware of the "forest" sense of the word "wood", but it didn't occur to me until comparatively recently that this might be the pertinent meaning.

  9. I'm Scottish and I don't think I have heard anyone say "in the wood". It's always "in the woods". The only time I would use the singular form would be if someone pointed and said, "what's that?" and I might say "a wood". I'd still probably say "the woods" though! We would also say "woods" in the name of a specific place like Ayr Woods. I also agree that a forest is generally reserved for a much larger area.

  10. I'm Scottish and I don't think I have heard anyone say "in the wood". It's always "in the woods". The only time I would use the singular form would be if someone pointed and said, "what's that?" and I might say "a wood". I'd still probably say "the woods" though! We would also say "woods" in the name of a specific place like Ayr Woods. I also agree that a forest is generally reserved for a much larger area.

  11. I understand 'can't see the wood for the trees' as involving a pun on wood 'collection of trees' and wood 'material'. No good with forest.

  12. Yes, there is a size distinction between woods and forests in both dialects. (i wasnt meaning to suggest otherwise--but that wasnt really relevant to the proverb). What would be interesting to look at is whether what's considered large enough to be a forest in the UK would be the same as in the US, or whether the larger land mass in the US would mean that we demand our forests be bigger. I also think Sally Kennett's point about wildness works in both dialects.

  13. I too know the expression as "can't see the wood for the trees", not "miss".
    As David says, a forest can be a tract of country (originally a royal hunting area), not necessarily all wooded. E.g. the New Forest, the Forest of Arden and the recently created National Forest.

  14. Just to complicate things, "forest" historically didn't mean an area populated by trees; it was one of those strange Norman-French legal terms and meant an area of land to which Forest Law applied, in other words a royal hunting ground. Though many such areas will have been populated with trees, Gershwin's Law ("It ain't necessarily so") applies. The name Forest lingers on in parts of England where you will be hard-pressed to find any trees except in localised woods: Dartmoor Forest, Macclesfield Forest and the Forest of Bowland spring readily to mind.

  15. Lynne:
    I've always had that problem with my name - Marc wirh a "c."

    The "Teddy Bears' Picnic" was popularized in the US back in the early 1950s as the the theme music for "Big John and Sparky," a Saturday morning children's radio (wireless) show (programme); no blue language.

    I've always said "forest for the trees."
    In my dialect (Central New HJersey), "wood" is used in names; e.g., "Brentwood," but never as a referent; "woods" is used instead, and is usually understood to describe a geographic feature of indeterminate but relatively limited size, as opposed to "forest," which describes a large area. Forest also carries nuances of formality, possibly a folk memory of the word's use to describe as a prerogative of royalty.

  16. What would be interesting to look at is whether what's considered large enough to be a forest in the UK would be the same as in the US, or whether the larger land mass in the US would mean that we demand our forests be bigger.

    We have very few forests, and in most cases the label was attached centuries ago. I was brought up near a forest — of sorts.

    Everyone has heard of Sherwood Forest, where Robin Hood could disappear while the Sherif of Nottingham vainly searched for him for days on end. Sherwood Forest today is more like a scattering of woods, redeemed by the ancient Major Oak as a focal point.

    At a point where the huge medieval forest neared the edge of Nottingham, there's a recreation ground called The Forest, big enough to hold the huge annual Goose Fair. It gave its name to a rather famous football club which started out on its playing fields. Still called Nottingham Forest.

    British children are brought up with a very different forest — the generic setting of many of Grimms' fairy tales. The forest in that sense is like nothing known to most of us in Britain. Even large areas like the New Forest or Epping Forest are far too tame to allow a child to imagine a witches cottage in the nest clearing.

    Usually when we imagine Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest, it's more like the merry green wood of folk song.

    Woods can be represented as frightening, but writers usually have to depict them at night, or through the eyes of children (Babes in the Wood) or of small animals (The Wind in the Willows).

  17. I work in a place called Corporate Woods (US)where they took out trees in order to put up office buildings.

  18. The 'official' words of The Teddy Bears' Picnic fit the melody extremely well. And yet they were copyrighted twenty-five years after the tune. I've no doubt that these 'official' words are the original words. If Better Half has heard any different, they must have been a parody.

    [Not so unlikely — it took me years and years to discover that there are clean words to Little Red Wing.]

    The words were written in 1932 and were immediately recorded by the Henry Hall band. The singer, Val Rosing, was not credited on the record label. So he's undeservedly forgotten. Henry Hall's was the BBC 's dance band, so they never stopped playing it on the radio. (There's a story that BBC engineers used it to test the transmission quality.)

    I reckon I must have heard it first before I started school [no the] — ever earlier than Marc Leavitt.

    PS Although (I think) resident in Britain, the lyricist was American. Even so, I don't think A British lyricist would have written If you go down in the wood todady. I may be wrong, though.

  19. David: According to Wikipedia, the music was written by an American, but the lyricist was Irish, resident in England.

  20. I grew up on an estate in Sussex where there are at least two woods, both known as Such-and-such Wood, but we speak of going for a walk "in the woods" rather than "in the wood".

    When I was a little girl I was always terrified of being lost in them - haunted by Babes in the Wood, I was. My parents still tease me, even though it was well over half a century ago.

  21. Lynne,

    Yes, I should have gone back and checked my memory of the article. Sorry! So that non-American writer also avoided go down in the wood.

    The article refers to the tune as Teddy Bear Two-Step. That's not accurate, but googling those words does lead to a piano roll performance. There are better versions on YouTube, but the Teddy Bears Picnic (Two-Step) version is genuinely old.

    The woods is a less scary place than the forest — although some posters on YouTube find the Teddy Bears Picnic words rather sinister. To me, Sondheim's Into the Woods seems jollier than the expected Into the Forest.

  22. @David Crosbie: "There's nothing obscene in the words of Teddy Bears' Picnic:
    If you go down in the woods today you're sure of a big surprise"

    Obscene might be pushing it a bit, but there's certainly the obvious possibility of interpreting "going down" here as a sexual act.

  23. Anonymous

    there's certainly the obvious possibility of interpreting "going down" here as a sexual act

    OK, there were some coded messages in some 'novelty' records of the 1930's. But Henry Hall's band played for the BBC under the heavily puritan regime of John Reith. If that interpretation had been available then, somebody in the BBC would have spotted it and made sure that the band never recorded the song.

    Later on, we were all familiar with the recording and the words of the song from earliest childhood. There was 'herd immunity' from any ability to make a non-childlike interpretation.

    I suppose those who now find the lyrics sinister are too young to have been 'inoculated'.

  24. Heavens, I wasn't for a moment suggesting that the sexual interpretation was originally intended, just that that's what Lynne's Better Half was (perhaps jocularly) referring to. Indeed it hadn't even occurred to me before.

    Meanwhile I agree more or less with Adrian Morgan, that to me "can't see the wood for the trees" always meant an inability to see the relevant detail because of being distracted by spurious overlain material. Wood being firm and solid whereas trees being all fluttery and leafy.

  25. Lynne:
    This was very interesting. I especially enjoyed the discussion about the song. Although I've long twigged to the AmE/BrE wood - woods distinction, and the idiomatic versatility of "trees from the forest" and "forest from the trees," I must admit that until yesterday, the subject was forest from my mind. However, we're probably not out of the woods yet; it would be interesting to learn if the expression branches off into parallel usages in Dutch and/or German. I know this comment may be going against the grain, so I'd just as lief lumber off before someone yells "timber!" and a tree falls on me in the wood(s). I'd be a sap to do otherwise, and risk life and limb.

  26. I love that I always learn new stuff here!

    I had always heard the "wood" in "can't see the wood for the trees" in the "timber / lumber" sense, so lesson learned: thank you for putting me right there.

    Something else I just learned is that forest comes ultimately from latin "foris" ("outside") – as in “foreign”.

    Now, as I assumed he would be, David Crosbie was first to point out that the likely reason we hear "wood" more than "forest" in the UK is some distant hint of the ancient feudal distinction, as much as (the not unrelated) distinctions of scale and wildness.

    Putting all that together with something I vaguely remember from University about another ancient distinction – between “wood” (small stuff that could be collected by the commoners, for fencing, for pea sticks, or for the fire) and “timber” (the big stuff suitable for construction or sale that belonged to the Lord) – I can see how we in Britain could have retained a sense that forests are big, scary, wild - foreign - places; places outside cultivation, places where us “commoners” / city-dwellers do not belong, places with enough (ancient) trees to shelter game and provide timber to roof a royal hall or build a ship for the navy, but not so dense as would obstruct hunting on horseback, while woods are smaller friendlier places, surrounded by, or on the edge, of cultivated land, where we might walk our dog, where our children might gather conkers; the sort of place our distant ancestors might have exercised their rights of “firebote” or “pannage”.

    I am however never going to be able to hear “If you go down in the woods today…” again without my mind going straight to the gutter. Did you really have to implant that image Lynne / Better Half?

  27. There's a rhyme which links the archetypal scary wood (no S) with the stereotypical scary gypsy.

    I say 'rhyme' although it's often cited as a children's song. For me it was one of those chants the girls did when they were skipping or playing some other rhythmic game. Being a boy, I never knew more than the start, but this fuller version makes more of the wood.

    My Mother said, I never should
    Play with the gipsies in the wood;
    If I did, she would say,
    You naughty girl to disobey.
    Your hair shan’t curl and your shoes shan’t shine,
    You gipsy girl, you shan’t be mine.
    And my father said that if I did
    He’d rap my head with the teapot-lid.
    The wood was dark, the grass was green
    Along came Sally with a tambourine.
    I went to sea - no ship to get across,
    I paid ten shillings for a blind white horse.
    I up on his back
    And was off on a crack,
    Sally tell my mother that I shan't come back.

  28. There are a number of word pairs such as town/city yard/garden shop/store which mean much the same thing, but a) the second member of the pair is indefinably more impressive than the first, and b) North America sets the boundary between the two at a different point. I suspect that wood/forest is an example, and I would be interested to see a post about the general phenomenon.

  29. A counterexample that springs to mind (which may be justified by poetic license, for all I know) is Robert Frost's "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."

  30. (Or could it be a New England thing?)

  31. Johnny E

    Robert Frost's "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..."

    And yet Frost famously wrote:

    Whose woods these are I think I know.
    His house is in the village though;
    He will not see me stopping here
    To watch his woods fill up with snow.

    My little horse must think it queer
    To stop without a farmhouse near
    Between the woods and frozen lake
    The darkest evening of the year.

    He gives his harness bells a shake
    To ask if there is some mistake.
    The only other sound’s the sweep
    Of easy wind and downy flake.

    The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
    But I have promises to keep,
    And miles to go before I sleep,
    And miles to go before I sleep.

    (emphasis added)

    Could it be that he found wood prosaic and woods mysterious?

  32. Philip Neal

    There are a number of word pairs such as town/city yard/garden shop/store which mean much the same thing, but a) the second member of the pair is indefinably more impressive than the first ... I suspect that wood/forest is an example

    An interesting idea. But I'd say that impressive size is only one variable. An important variable in shop/store, but less so in the others. We've discussed the feudal and fairytale connotations of forest in BrE. The definition of city is also affected by specifically British variables: whether it has a royal charter; whether it has a cathedral.

    Yard/garden has to be excluded, though. In BrE a yard is almost the opposite of a garden. Both are patches of land next to a dwelling, but a garden is planted and a yard is essentially clear of vegetation. The function of a garden is to provide flowers, food and recreational space. The function of a yard is to provide space for large stuff that doesn't need to be under a roof. (If the building is a palace, the 'large stuff' might even be a parade of soldiers.)

    In Scotland we have a third patch-of-land type — historically and theoretically. Tenements were built with a grassed-over yard called a green to be used jointly by the joint owners, mainly for drying clothes. It was specifically not a garden. However, most drying greens that I know of have since been partly tuned into gardens (around the edges).

  33. Another example of a word pair that I suspect is used differently in the UK for the US is sea/ocean. For us, 'sea' is the ordinary word. 'Ocean' is something big that you only reach when you get out beyond the continental shelf. One wouldn't describe the waters that happen to be the English Channel, the Irish Sea or the North Sea as 'the ocean'. I don't think a person would casually refer to the sea off Brighton and the University of Sussex as 'the ocean'.

    I get the impression that in the US, 'ocean' is much more a 'normal' word to describe expanses of salt as distinct from fresh water.

  34. Dru

    'Ocean' is something big that you only reach when you get out beyond the continental shelf.

    That's not necessarily true for parts of Cornwall or the West of Ireland where the proper name Atlantic Ocean begins at the coast.


  35. I get the impression that in the US, 'ocean' is much more a 'normal' word to describe expanses of salt as distinct from fresh water.

    Well, it would be, wouldn't it, given that both the East and the West coasts of that nation are lapped by oceans, rather than by seas as is more nearly the case with us.

  36. I've (US) always thought that the phrasing "two roads diverged in a yellow wood" was supposed to be an indication that these are metaphorical roads, not real ones. I find both "a wood" and "the sea" to be poetic words, not everyday ones. I wouldn't use them to describe a real place.

    Though actually, I don't think I've ever seen a wood in the sense of "small forest" - landscapes in the US tend to be either all trees for miles and miles or barely any trees at all. Is it common in the UK to find the small groupings of trees that "a wood" calls to mind?

  37. So many things to comment on.... *blinks*

    Here in landlocked South Dakota, about as far away from both seas and oceans as it is possible to get, I've always thought of oceans as large (the Pacific, the Atlantic) and seas as smaller (the Mediterranean) but both with salt water. If I lived near one I have no idea if I'd say I'm going to the sea or to the ocean when I went to the beach.

    Wood/Woods -- the first thing that came to mind was the Hundred Acre Wood. You can tell I was raised on Winnie the Pooh. (And I'm rather surprised no one has mentioned it yet.)

    That was fascinating about the official definition in Great Britain of forest as opposed to wood.

    I'm not sure how that equates in the U.S. We have the National Forest Service, and a lot of National Forests. I have the impression that they are mostly in the western half of the U.S., but I'd have to check on that to be sure. Some of them are huge tracts of wilderness (places in the Rocky Mountains or in Alaska), while others are like the one near where I life, with lots of roads, backroads, recreation areas and vacation cabins scattered throughout, as well as some areas that are officially designated as wilderness for preservation purposes (meaning they don't want people tearing up the landscape and the vegetation with four wheel drive recreational vehicles, among other things). I don't know if this will make any of that make any sense, but here: Black Hills National Forest, if you want to poke around. (Off topic, but we also have National Grasslands and National Seashores.)

    I've always said and heard it as "can't see the forest for the trees" but we do say "in my neck of the woods" around here.

  38. Also, stone/rock. 'A mob gathered and threw rocks' sounds odd to British ears because a rock is too big to lift with one hand.

  39. Yes. I'd forgotten the stone/rock one. I agree.

  40. I wasn't aware of the stone/rocks thing. How small can an AmE rock be? Does a stone have to be smaller? Or is the impressiveness dimension different from size?

  41. In Scotland one may hear dark references to 'the Forestry' - uniform forests of conifers, destined for use as timber (or perhaps matchsticks and chipboard), and planted in the 1960s onwards only - they replaced the ancient woodland of birch, spruce, hazel trees and mixed shrubs. So my image of a forest is darker and more shady than one would find in a beech wood, for example, where the trees are naturally more widely spaced. Conifers are able to grow more closely together, and grow upwards (e.g. lodgepole pines in Yellowstone)

  42. biochemist

    The usage you describe stems from the practice of The Forestry Commission in a dark period of its history when they planted only fast-growing trees for a quick buck. Their policy changed, and so did their public image — to the extent that there was an outcry when the Government prosed to sell this public enterprise into private hands. The loudest voices were traditionalists with no socialist axe (BrE spelling) to grind.

    I don't think everybody would describe all the woodlands that the Forestry Commission own and manage as forests.

  43. David Crosbie

    Did you notice that we both referred to woodland - one might also mention scrubland but never forestland in BrE.
    A woodland grove - a grove in the woods - a clearing in the forest.

  44. biochemist

    The OED has a sub-entry for forest-land. There are four quotes:

    1. (1649) Milton — referring to one way that a King seized land (as Crown-Land being the other)

    2. (1805) reference to Australian forest land characterised by grass rather than trees.

    3. & 4. (20th century) — referring to Scandinavia

    However, the OED Online has eight quotes for forestland from the Dictionary of American English.

    All the examples use forest(-)land as an uncountable noun denoting the type of landscape — with a single exception referring to countable forestlands (analogous to the woods)

    He headed into the forestlands of Dalarna.

    I don't know who he was or where the forests were, but it's from something called History of the Vikings.


    the OED Online has eight entries ...

    Sorry, I meant Oxford Dictionaries Online.

  46. Thank you, starwefter. The only reason I'm familiar with the BrE 'wood' usage is from being raised on Winnie-the-Pooh as well. At least to my "left coast" American ears, 'woods' are what they have back east; 'forests' are what we have here out west, so I guess the wildness aspect does have some pertinence. But I live in a place with lots of homes and even more trees and we all call this a forest despite it's lack of wilderness status.

  47. All that got me thinking we do say woodsman, though, with sort of a differing meaning by context, but more or less varying between someone who knows his way around in the woods to someone who knows how to survive in them. We also say backwoods, implying a bit outside the realm of civilized town dwellers, for lack of a better way to put it. I think both of those uses are common throughout the U.S.

    Our national forest is mostly pine, along with some other evergreen species (Black Hills Spruce (Picea glauca var. densata) is a native species) but that's caused more by a matter of climate, along no doubt with a myriad of other related phenomena that someone who knows far more about weather, plants and soil than I do would have to explain.

    According to, the major part of the American hardwood forest occurs in the eastern third of the U.S. (I would hazard a guess that Canada's hardwoods are similarly distributed, soil, mountain ranges and weather being no respecters of national boundaries.) Far less of the U.S. National Forest system is located east of the Mississippi River; according to Wikipedia (that great miscellaneous slushpool of sometimes facts); 87% lies to the west, 12% in Alaska alone. The upshot of this is that a lot of the National Forest in the U.S. is pine and other evergreens, but that's a matter of just what grows there naturally, not of any plan by the government. According to Wikipedia, the National Forests to the west of the Mississippi River generally have always been located on public land, whereas the ones to the East are on land that was formerly in private ownership and which has been reacquired and occasionally replanted.

  48. starwefter

    BrE isn't all that different. I'm not sure we'd all say woodsman for a man who knows his way about in the woods, but we'd say woodcraft for that knowledge. Woodsman for a worker is OK in BrE, but we'd probably call his knowledge/trade forestry.

    A forester was a worker, often an official, in a medieval Royal Forest.

    Backwoods and backwoodsman are both common in BrE. Before the House of Lords was reformed, the term backwoodsman was applied to a hereditary peer who turned up one in a blue moon to vote on something that affected the landed aristocracy, but who otherwise was never seen in London.

  49. Perhaps it's significant that the OED entry for woodman is considerably longer than the entry for woodsman.

    A strange difference is how the plural is reported. Woodmen is given without comment, but woodsmen is described as (Chiefly U.S.)

  50. I agree with Philip Nea. "There are a number of word pairs such as town/city yard/garden shop/store which mean much the same thing, but a) the second member of the pair is indefinably more impressive than the first, and b) North America sets the boundary between the two at a different point. I suspect that wood/forest is an example, and I would be interested to see a post about the general phenomenon. "

  51. Woodcraft I think means the same in both British and American English, woodsman though brings more to mind someone like Daniel Boone for me. We might call a modern guy working in the woods/forest a forester, but I really think we'd be more likely to say a forestry worker (or else refer to a specific job, like a logger for someone who cuts down trees).

    I suspect that "backwoods" made it across the Atlantic, but changed meaning a bit in the process, lacking any peers to attach too. Somehow I don't see us using it for anyone quite that high up the social ladder; it's more likely we'd used it to refer to someone farming said Lord's far back 40 acres, or the guy that farmer hired as help.

    In trying to hunt down a specific set of lyrics to use as an example though, Google spit out a link for all kinds of lyrics that contain the word "backwood" or "backwoods" and what is interesting is that it retains the concept of being from a rural area, small town or out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere place with the absence of city polish and sophistication.

  52. I grew up surrounded by the California redwoods. When you left town you were in the woods. Some official government entity might designate a state or national forest and give it a boundary, but the hundreds and hundreds of square miles of trees are simply "the woods." The indefiniteness is exemplified by the plural...they go on nearly forever. You can go all the way to Canada without leaving "the woods."

    Never "the wood." That would imply a small area, neatly defined, like a developer might plant on his property. People who work in the woods are loggers, or rangers, or whatever, or just "work in the woods."

    The mountains there are generally called "hills," although individually they are sometimes named "ridges," a truer description. (The California Coast Range is mostly not high, but is rugged, with steep hills and narrow canyons.)

    The "backwoods?" I think that's someone's pot farm. Those are usually "out in the boonies."

  53. Starwefter

    Somehow I don't see us using it for anyone quite that high up the social ladder

    It was a joke!

    It first meant some poor farmer miles from civilisation. It was later used mockingly of those seldom-seen aristocrats.

    It's entirely possible that it originally crossed the Atlantic from you to us.

  54. This comment has been removed by the author.

  55. Starwefter, here's a set of lyrics that might interest you: Clara Smith's 1924 Back Woods Blues.

    Got the backwoods blues : but I don't want to go back home
    Got the blues so bad : for the place that I came from
    Ought to see my folks : but it's way too far
    To ride in a dusty old : Jim Crow car
    Got the backwoods blues : but I don't want to go back home

    Got the backwoods blues : for the place way down in 'Bam
    Got the blues : but I'm going to stay here where I am
    Going to stay right here : just where I'm at
    Where there ain't no grinning : and snatching off my hat
    Got the backwoods blues : but I don't want to go back home

    Got the backwoods blues : for the folks I left down home
    I got the blues : for them poor old folks alone
    Yes I'm from down there : I am proud to say to say
    But from down there : I'm gonna stay
    Got the backwoods blues : but I don't want to go back home

  56. @Julie - re:"out in the boonies"

    Hey, this is "Seperated By A Common Language", not "Tagalog Blog" :-)

  57. Rosa Henderson also recorded Back Woods Blues in 1924. Unlike Clara Smith she sand the opening 'verse':

    Way back down behind Decatur : in an Alabama shack
    There's my mammy and my daddy : wondering' when I'm comin' back
    How I miss them, goodness knows: more and more each day
    That's why I've got these backwoods blues : ever since I went away

  58. @Julie - re:" The California Coast Range is mostly not high"

    Another interesting difference in "scale / crossover point” between East and West-Pondian “high” there.

    To us Brits, the Californian Coastal Ranges are definitely high. The highest point in the Coastal Ranges is Black Butte at 2,272 m, whereas the highest point in the whole of the UK is Ben Nevis at 1,344 m.

  59. @Alyssa - re: “Is it common in the UK to find the small groupings of trees that ‘a wood’ calls to mind?”

    Absolutely - it’s a small country with a fairly dense, though unevenly distributed population: think Oregon but with 16 times the population (and 16 times the rainfall) – we do “small stuff” pretty well :-)

    Obviously, the number of woods varies from place to place, and while we bemoan urban sprawl, you only have to take to the air (or Google maps) to see how green is our land.

    Try pasting this address: “52.4432, -2.2120” into Google maps. I grew up just north east of here, on the edge of the West Midlands conurbation a.k.a. The Black Country (the rust-belt towns between Birmingham and Wolverhampton), and used to walk and cycle and fish in this area when I was a kid. Best seen on satellite view are a whole selection of different sized wooded areas in a patchwork with fields and villages and towns. You will also see the different names applied to some of the woods: “x Wood”, “x Coppice / Copse” (an area of woodland [formerly] managed as “coppice” or “coppice with standards”), and “x Covert” (a small area of land left wild as a sanctuary for game). The names aren’t there on Google, but I remember there also being woods in the area known locally as “x Plantation” (small areas trees planted as a commercial forestry crop, usually conifers, frequently non-native).

  60. @starwefter - re: “That was fascinating about the official definition in Great Britain of forest as opposed to wood”

    You have to remember that the ancient legal distinctions that David Crosbie and I have been talking about here stem from the feudal system that the Normans brought to these isles in 1066. I don't know if anything remains in English (or Scottish) law of these ancient distinctions, but there does seem to be a residue of those historic distinctions in the way we use the terms “wood” and “forest” in the UK today.

    Maybe we just have long memories (helped along by ancient place names, like: "Sherwood Forest")!

  61. @Joe: Although Oregon is only slightly larger than the UK in area, it has significantly more rainfall (at least in the most populated areas).


  62. We seem to have reduced one AmE/BrE difference largely to the disparity in geographical size. We're much more likely to speak of a wood and so much less likely to speak of a forest because we're small have lots of places called a wood, while you're big and have lots of places called a forest.

    The major difference lies in what we can (and quite often do) mean by the wood and the woods.

    It occurs to me that we have a strange rule which applies to foreign words but not to native words like wood(s).

    When we say the veld, the steppe, the taiga, the marais (and no doubt more that I haven't thought of), we mean 'such land as has the quality of such-and-such'. We don't mean 'that particular patch of such-and-such land that we both have in mind'.

    The native word bush can be used both ways but with very different meanings. The bush can be land of a certain type (cf veldt) or a definite plant (cf tree). The definite noun phrases the wood and the woods have meanings which are confusingly similar but also crucially different.

    • In the veld/steppe/taigasense, both the wood and the woods can be used, but BrE favours the former and AmE seems to very much favour the latter.

    • In the patch of ground sense, the wood has connotations of a smaller area than the woods. Britain has more patches that are smaller, so we have more occasions to refer to a definite example as the wood.

    The forest also has the two senses: a veldt-type sense and a definite patch of land sense. I believe the prairie has only the former sense, which would fit in with my foreign words rule. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

    A borderline phrase is the jungle. In my lifetime, this has largely been replaced by tropical forest (without definite the). This may be because the jungle has acquired unfortunate connotations, often racial. Duke Ellington was forced to philosophise on what an interesting place the jungle was, claiming it as a place located in music, not in racist fantasies of Africa.

    The street is like the bush. Figuratively, it's like the veldt; literally it refers to a defined thoroughfare.

  63. David Crosbie, you seem to be saying that the differences in usage have to do with differences in geography rather than differences in language. But you are forgetting the original post. It started with "the wood", which, as noted in the original post, does not mean any sort of tree-filled land of any size in American English.

  64. ek

    It started with "the wood", which, as noted in the original post, does not mean any sort of tree-filled land of any size in American English.

    I accept that it usually doesn't mean that, bit I've seen too many counter-examples to accept that it never means that for all AmE speakers.

    I even have a blues record where the artist (Blind Lemon Jefferson) sang piney wood but the record company put Piney Woods on the label. Your poet Robert Frost has been quoted using and wood. Your place names with wood — including the centre of your film industry — suggest that wood was once more commonly used than it is now.

    Yes I am suggesting that there might be a geographical pressure in the demise of wood in America and the preservation in Britain. I may be wrong, but it's with considering.

    What we're both agreed on is that the most important difference between BrE and AmE is the use of wood, woods, the wood, the woods. The use of forest, the forest is a side issue.

  65. Of course i associate bears with the woods but I love this verse from Little Esther

    Esther: You should be out in in the forest, Fighting a big old grizzly bear
    Bobby: How come you ain't out in the forest?
    Esther: (spoken) I'm a lady
    Bobby: They got lady bears out there

  66. Funny to read about the Hundred Acre Wood in this context - it's non-fiction name being the Ashdown Forest!

  67. FLbased Brit

    Funny to read about the Hundred Acre Wood...

    Not so funny — well, not surprising, anyway. Their publicity reads:

    Discover more at Ashdown Forest...

    Originally a deer hunting forest in Norman times, Ashdown Forest is now one of the largest free public access space in the South East. It is a great place for walking and enjoying spectacular views over the Sussex countryside and is known the world over as the 'home' of Winnie-the-Pooh.

  68. PS
    Here's the link to the Ashdown Forest site. Note the scarcity of trees in the photo. On a different screen they explain that the 'forest' is 60% heathland and only 40% woodland.

  69. I so (sooooooo) hate to break it to the Ashdown Forest, but they are perhaps not as famous as they hope; I for one had never heard of them before, much less had known that they were the basis for the 100 Acre Wood.

    However now I do. I (perhaps rather weirdly) actually love knowing this kind of thing (it makes life more interesting, and somehow all around better), so I appreciate that it was brought up. I didn't even know there /was/ a basis for the 100 Acre Wood.

    Why do the things of our childhood stir us so deeply?

  70. Massachusetts Age 25-

    Apologies in advance:

    Going down in the wood is still more innocent than going down on the wood.

    The connotations brought to mind by wood woods and forest are less directly about size than they are about wildness. A wood is carefully managed, possibly on private land. Woods are less well maintained but still domestic. Forests are wild growth tended by only mother nature.(prototypically at any rate)

  71. My favourite 78rpm record as a child in the 60's was Teddy Bear's Picnic and I recall the words were down TO the woods. So I googled the lyrics - written by an Irish man in 1932 and every source has "to" not "in". Being English, going down in the woods sounds obscene to me.

    Sorry this is anymous, it wont let me sign in.

  72. Anonymous

    My favourite 78rpm record as a child in the 60's was Teddy Bear's Picnic and I recall the words were down TO the woods.

    Even as late as the 60's, they were still playing the Henry Hall version (click), which most certainly had 'down in the woods'. You might have been listening to the Anne Murray version (click), which also had 'down in the woods'.

    I strongly suspect that your memory has unconsciously censored the words. The sources you googled may even have censored consciously.

  73. On the issue of size, since sizes of geographical features tend to be not well understood across the Atlantic:

    The nearest National Forest to me is Arapaho National Forest. It has an area of 2928 km^2. It is one of eleven National Forests in Colorado, and many parts are very nearly wilderness. At that size, I think it's in the bottom half of the list of the 154 US National Forests when the list is sorted by area.

    If I were to go shooting in Arapaho National Forest, I'd probably refer to it as "going shooting in the woods" or "going shooting on National Forest land".


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)