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The meaning and origin of the expression: Wild goose chase

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Wild goose chase

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Meaning

A hopeless quest.

Origin

This phrase is old and appears to be one of the many phrases introduced to the language by Shakespeare. The first recorded citation is from Romeo and Juliet, 1592:

Romeo: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I'll cry a match.

Mercutio: Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.

wild goose chaseOur current use of the phrase alludes to an undertaking which will probably prove to be fruitless - and it's hard to imagine anything more doomed to failure than an attempt to catch a wild goose by chasing after it. Our understanding of the term differs from that in use in Shakespeare's day. The earlier meaning related not to hunting but to horse racing. A 'wild goose chase' was a race in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation. The equine connection was referred to a few years before Shakespeare's usage, in Gervase Markham's equestrian instructional manual A Discource of Horsmanshippe, 1593. Markham describes the rules of the race at length, the essential point being that the horses follow each toher like geese in flight:

The Wild-goose chase being started, in which the hind∣most Horse is bound to follow the formost, and you hauing the leading, hold a hard hand of your Horse, and make hym gallop softly at great ease, insomuch, that perceiuing your aduersarie striue to take the leading from you, suffer him to come so néere you, that his Horses head may wel nye touch your Horses buttocke, which when you sée, clappe your left spurre in your horses side, and wheele him suddainlie halfe about on your right hand, and then take him vp againe, till such time that he be come to you againe: thus may you doo of eyther hand which you will, and in neuer a one of these turnes, but you shall throw him that rides against you, at least twenty or thirtie yardes behind you, so that whilst you ride at your ease, he shal be forst continually to come vp to you vpon the spur•es, which must wearie the best Horse in the world.Also in thys match, gette your law in the Wild-goose chase, which is most vsually twelue score to bee twentie score, that if your aduersary chaunce to haue more spéede then you, yet with your truth and toughnes, you may reco∣uer him: for that Horse that lets another ouer-runne hym twenty score at the first in a wild-goose chase, it is pyttie he should euer be hunter.

That meaning had been lost by the 19th century. In Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, he defines the term much the way we do today:

"A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy."

The 1978 film 'The Wild Geese' alluded to the phrase in its title. This refers back to Irish mercenaries who 'flew' from Ireland to serve in various European armies in the 16th to 18th centuries. The plot of the film involved a group of mercenaries embarking on a near-impossible mission. Of course, the near-impossible is no problem for action heroes and they caught their prey.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.

See also: point to point.