will-o'-the-wisp was our Word of the Day on 09/06/2016. Hear the podcast!
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The Mystical Origins of will-o'-the-wisp
The will-o'-the-wisp is a flame-like phosphorescence caused by gases from decaying plants in marshy areas. In olden days, it was personified as "Will with the wisp," a sprite who carried a fleeting "wisp" of light. Foolish travelers were said to try to follow the light and were then led astray into the marsh. (An 18th-century fairy tale described Will as one "who bears the wispy fire to trail the swains among the mire.") The light was first known, and still also is, as ignis fatuus, which in Latin means "foolish fire." Eventually, the name will-o’-the-wisp was extended to any impractical or unattainable goal.
WILL-O'-THE-WISP Defined for English Language Learners
Definition of will-o'-the-wisp for English Language Learners
: a goal that cannot be reached
: a light that sometimes appears at night over wet ground
Learn More about will-o'-the-wisp
Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about will-o'-the-wisp
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