will-o'-the-wisp

noun

1
2
: a delusive or elusive goal
will-o'-the-wisp adjective

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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.

Word History

Etymology

Will (nickname for William) + of + the + wisp

First Known Use

circa 1661, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of will-o'-the-wisp was circa 1661

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Dictionary Entries Near will-o'-the-wisp

Cite this Entry

“Will-o'-the-wisp.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/will-o%27-the-wisp. Accessed 29 Jan. 2023.

Kids Definition

will-o'-the-wisp

noun
ˌwil-ə-t͟hə-ˈwisp
1
: a light that sometimes appears in the night over marshy ground
2
: a false or unreachable goal

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