This expression, still popular today, has been in use in largely the same form for centuries. Many dictionaries trace it back as far as 1546, where it was recorded in John Heywood’s “Prouerbes in the English Tongue”. He wrote “ye can not see the wood for trees”. However, in order for Heywood to include it in his work, it must have already been widely known and recognised, which of course gives us the first clue that there might be a longer history than at first thought.
An intriguing reference appears in a work by Thomas More, who was famously executed by King Henry VIII. This was the enormously titled “The second parte of the confutacion of Tyndals answere in whyche is also confuted the chyrche that Tyndale deuyseth. And the chyrche also that frere Barns deuyseth”, generally known simply as “The Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer”, which is dated 1533, thus putting it 13 years before Heywood’s work.
Here’s the section, with the expression at the end: “Uery well declared, as though he wold tell vs that there were a woman that went inuysyble, and that he ment not that her handes, or her fete, or her hed, or any parte of her were inuysyble / but all her partes beynge vysyble, her self were yet inuysyble. And as he myght tell vs, that of Pou|les chyrch we may well se the stones, but we can not se the chyrce. And then we may well tell hym agayne, that he can not se the wood for the trees.” (p. ccccxxxvii, in Book VIII.)
It goes beautifully with the preceding sentence about seeing the stones but not the church, and the way in which it is used so naturally does indeed suggest that this was already a well known expression by 1533.
Trees were an important part of culture across the continent, so it is natural that this should be an expression that appears in many different languages. In German it is Den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen, while in French just one tree is preferred, with l’arbre qui cache la forêt; “the tree that hides the forest”. Similarly, in Spanish it is por ver el árbol no ves el bosque “seeing the tree, you don’t see the woods”. And of course, in Welsh it is almost a word for word translation: methu gweld y coed gan breniau.
Even non-Indo-European Hungarian gives us nem látja a fától az erdöt. And in Finnish it is Ei nähdä metsää puilta, “not to see the trees of the forest.” In Russian, they say деревья не дают на лес посмотреть (dereviya ne dayut na les posmotret), which is literally “the trees don’t let you see the forest”. From Greek comes βλέπω το δέντρο και όχι το δάσος (vlepo to dentro kai ohi to dasos), which is “I see the tree but not the woods”.
With special thanks to Lucy Allen for her help in researching the reference to this expression in Thomas More’s work.