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.

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