Will o' the wisp

Posted by R. Berg on January 06, 2002

In Reply to: Will o' the wisp posted by Wesley on January 06, 2002

: : : What does the phrase "will o' the wisp" mean, and where does it come from? Thanks.

: : From the Oxford English Dictionary:

: : [Etymology:] "Will-o-the-wisp . . . [orig. 'Will with the wisp': see WILL sb.3 and WISP sb. Cf. JACK-O'LANTERN, and, for the second element, G. 'irrwisch'.]"

: : "Will, sb.3 Abbreviated pet-form of the Christian name 'William'."

: : [Definitions for WISP include a handful of hay, a bunch of straw used as a torch, and the like, and then this:] "A marsh-fire, WILL-O'-THE-WISP; also the light supposed to be carried by the sprite."

: : [Meaning:] " = IGNIS FATUUS; fig. a thing (rarely a person) that deludes or misleads by means of fugitive appearances."

: So it's the "light supposed to be carried by the sprite --- a thing that deludes or misleads by means of fugitive appearances" ???? Something that may or may not exist, seen intermittently, a possibly mistaken perception?

Something like that. I checked two other dictionaries. Ignis fatuus is "a phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night, possibly caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter" (Amer. Heritage Dict.). The other meaning, probably (though not certainly) derived from that one, is something visionary or impractical, or a delusive or misleading goal. Think "chasing rainbows" or "walking across the desert toward the mirage that looks like an oasis."