In a recent conversation, with Joonas (in our site's chat room), about chess, the well-known English idiom "can't see the wood for the trees" came up. This phenomenon--whether caused by a lack of intuition; succumbing to pressure; a "tunnel-vision" over-concentration on one detail, failing to see the bigger picture, which is right before the eyes--it has cost many a checkmate!

The Finnish version (Joonas) translates to "not seeing the forest for the trees". The German version and some off-the-wall theories on the English Language Learners site.

How did the Romans express this concept, if they did?

I can't find anything so a wild guess:

"lignum videre non possum, quia arbores id celarent."

"I can't see the wood, because the trees seem to have concealed it."

Any ideas?

Here is Google

  • 2
    English is not my first language: in the English idiom is really “wood” meant in the sense of the material (lignum) rather than the place (silva, say)? Apparently, at least Finnish and Italian mean the latter.
    – DaG
    Commented Apr 15, 2020 at 23:02
  • 2
    @DaG The idiom is usually “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and while “wood” can be used as a synonym for “forest,” that would absolutely be in the sense of silva, and lignum would be wrong.
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 3:13
  • 1
    Thanks, @KRyan, I thought so. I asked since in the question a tentative Latin translation with lignum was offered.
    – DaG
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 7:56
  • 2
    @DaG, FYI in American English "wood" (singular) virtually always means the material, while "woods" (plural) usually refers to the place: "I went for a walk in the woods." It's different in British English. A British speaker might say, "I went for a walk in a wood." Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 12:56

2 Answers 2


That ideas was expressed well by the poet Sextus Propertius when he said,

Medio flumine quaeris aquam

Here's a translation of the passage:

"What good is it now, in your misery, to speak your solemn poem, to mourn the walls of Amphion and his lyre? Mimnermos' poetry is worth more in love than Homer's: mild Love seeks soft songs. Please, go bury those sad books and sing anything the girl wants to hear! What if this abundance were not so easily yours? Now, like a madman, you are standing in the middle of a river asking for water." (Sextus Propetius, Elegies 1.9)

A similar exression is:

In mari aquam quaeris

  • 3
    It seems to me that, assuming I remember the word correctly, mare meaning “sea” would suggest salt water, which puts me in mind of a quite-different English phrase: “water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” As Sebastian notes with his suggestions, however, “can’t see the forest for the trees” is about focusing too much on the details and missing the big pictures, which isn’t the sense Sextus Propertius had here.
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 3:17
  • 2
    @KRyan. It reminds me of the same thing, and for that reason I prefer the river proverb. However, if you search the internet, you'll find that "In mari aquam quaeris" is understood by many as meaning "can't see the wood for the trees". Its listed as such in more than one dictionary of proverbs. The same goes for the proverb of Sextus Propertius. Many have understood it to be more or less equivalent. Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 3:27
  • 2
    @KRyan Since the question explicitly asked how the Romans expressed the concept, we are a bit constrained here. If I could translate freely, I would say something like: Silvam viderem, nisi arbores prospectum impedirent ;-) Commented Apr 16, 2020 at 19:33
  • 2
    @Expedito Bipes: Excellent answer. Thank you. Which Dictionary of Proverbs do you use?
    – tony
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 10:02
  • 2
    @tony. You're welcome. I didn't actually use a dictionary. I found these phrase is dictionaries after discovering them, such as "Full, Large and General Phrase Book" by William Robertson, and "Thesaurus Linguae Latinae" by Robert Ainsworth. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 11:14

If the sentiment is “to be unable to see what is in plain sight” (preferably expressed by means of a woodland-based metaphor), then I would suggest:

Frondem in silvis non cernere.

Literally: Not seeing the leaves in the wood.

… or, in the first person: Frondem in silvis non cerno. This is not a common Latin turn of phrase, but rather an expression coined by Ovid. He used it in Tristia 5.4.9, along with several other metaphors. The context is that Ovid, having been exiled to the Black Sea, is homesick (1) and sends a letter to Rome. He says:

Tristitiae causam siquis cognoscere quaerit,
ostendi solem postulat ille sibi,
nec frondem in silvis, nec aperto mollia prato
gramina, nec pleno flumine cernit aquam; …

If somebody asks to know the reason for my sadness,
ah, that person probably needs help to find the sun in the sky,
does not see the leaves in the wood, the soft grass
in an open meadow, the water in a flowing river.

(Okay, I was a little free with the second line there.)

But admittedly the English expression carries another nuance: That somebody sees all the details but fails to perceive a greater truth that would require considering the whole situation at once (does not see the “big picture”). If that is the sentiment, these Latin expressions do not quite capture it.

(1) Saying Ovid was homesick is not wrong, but is admittedly a bit of a trivialisation of the whole Tristia.

  • ausgezeichnete Antwort, danke. The second line could be more direct: "he requires, for himself, to be shown the sun"; the implication, "he is stupid". Thanks again.
    – tony
    Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 10:08
  • The English phrase really does mean the latter: paying too close attention to the trees that you fail to notice the whole wooods.
    – cmw
    Commented May 9, 2022 at 20:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.