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Will-o’-the-wisp

To see faint lights hovering and slipping about near the ground on a dark night would be enough to scare anybody travelling through a marsh. No wonder the sightings gave rise to superstitious beliefs everywhere that they have appeared. There are many words for them, including the old sense of jack-o’-lantern and the learned Latin ignis fatuus, the foolish fire, as well as will-o’-the-wisp.

Attempts to approach the lights result in them seeming to recede or vanish, only to appear somewhere else. So people thought they were the work of a mischievous sprite trying to lead unwary travellers astray. That is why there are personal names involved — Will and Jack. Will-o’-the-wisp was originally Will with the wisp, wisp here meaning a handful of hay, presumed to be alight.

We know now that the flames are methane (marsh gas), ignited by the traces of hydrogen phosphide sometimes found near decaying organic matter. Both will-o’-the-wisp and ignis fatuus are used figuratively for some false idea or influence that leads people astray.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Aug. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-wil1.htm
Last modified: 31 August 2002.