The idiomatic English phrase “barking up the wrong tree” refers to someone who is making a mistake, misjudging something, or looking for something in the wrong place. This idiom relies on a physical metaphor, something that many English language experts call personification. In this case, a human who is looking for something is allegorically likened to a hunting dog.
When hunting dogs are on the hunt for prey, they will often corner that prey in a tree. The dog will bark or bay, and stand beneath the tree in a way that indicates where the prey is. If the hunting dog is mistaken, this effort will ultimately be unsuccessful. This is the activity that has led to the popular use of the idiom “barking up the wrong tree.”
Many instances of this phrase can be found in literature of the early 1800s. Although this may have been primarily an oral phrase, something said by one person to another in vernacular, it eventually found its way into magazines and other publications. The phrase became a popular way to describe any sort of mistaken search or misjudgment of a situation.
Although the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” relies on a visual metaphor, English speakers have used it in successive decades to describe very intangible or abstract situations. For example, if someone is talking about a board of leadership for a company, and says that they are “barking up the wrong tree” for funding, he or she is trying to illustrate how the fundraising activities are ill targeted or unlikely to be successful. This kind of situation does not correlate very directly to the original meaning of the idiomatic phrase.
Other English speakers may use the phrase in a more direct way. If someone says to someone else “you’ve come to me for money, but you’re barking up the wrong tree” this response can be a colloquial way to point out that the source is not correct, that the “tree” where the person is searching is not going to yield what that person is looking for.
Alternatives include more direct phrasing, such as “you’re looking in the wrong place.” The “colorful” phrasing of the hunting allegory has appealed to many speakers of English over the years, and even as food culture changes, this idiom shows little sign of falling into disuse.