Will o' the wisp

Posted by Masakim on January 06, 2002

In Reply to: Will o' the wisp posted by R. Berg 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."

Will o' the Wisp or Kit with the Canstick (Candlestic).--Wisp, in the name of this phenomenon, implies a little twist of straw, a kind of straw torch. Thus Junius in verbo: "Frisiis 'wispien,' etiamuum est ardentes straminis fasciculos in altum tollere." These names have undoubtedly been derived from its appearance, as if Will, Jack, or Kit, or some @country fellows, were going about with lighted straw torches in their hands. In the West of England, the will-o'-wiso is known under this name, and also under that of Joan-in-the-Wad. ...
From _Dictionary of Faiths & Folklore_ by W.C. Hazlitt

will-o'-the-wisp / wil-uh-thuh-WISP / (noun)
What does it mean?
: a light that sometimes appears in the night over marshy ground
How do you use it?
From her cottage window, Maureen could see the will-o'-the-wisps flickering above the marsh in the autumn night sky.
Are you a word wiz?
Will-o'-the-wisps are pretty mysterious. Here is another mystery that we hope you can solve. Which of the answers do you think describes another meaning of "will-o'-the-wisp"?
A. a false or unreachable goal
B. a simple song with refrain
C. a strong ribbed fabric in plain weave
D. a show of magnificence
If you picked A, you've shown that understanding today's Buzzword is not a will-o'-the-wisp! Besides referring to a mysterious light, "will-o'-the-wisp" can also mean "a false or unreachable goal." The tiny, flitting lights (generally believed to be the result of gases produced by decomposing plants in marshy areas) always seem to be just out of the reach of those who try to catch whatever is causing them. Chasing them came long ago to be considered a fool's errand. Eventually their name was applied to any similarly impractical or unreachable goal.
From Merriam-Webster's Daily Buzzword (Sept 6, 2001)