\ ˌwil-ə-t͟hə-ˈwisp How to pronounce will-o'-the-wisp (audio) \

Definition of will-o'-the-wisp

2 : a delusive or elusive goal

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Other Words from will-o'-the-wisp

will-o'-the-wisp adjective

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.

First Known Use of will-o'-the-wisp

circa 1661, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for will-o'-the-wisp

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

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Time Traveler for will-o'-the-wisp

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

will never do



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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 20 Oct. 2021.

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English Language Learners Definition of will-o'-the-wisp

: a goal that cannot be reached
: a light that sometimes appears at night over wet ground

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