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Will-o’-the-wisp is a word that was derived from a phrase popular in the 1600s. It describes a natural phenomenon but is also used figuratively. We’ll look at the meaning of will-o’-the-wisp, the original phrase it is derived from and a few examples of its use in sentences.

A will-o’-the-wisp is a ghost light seen in nature, usually hovering over a swamp or bog. These ghost lights are believed to be the result of the spontaneous ignition of naturally occurring methane gas. In the past, will-o’-the-wisps were believed to be fairies, elementals, ghosts of the dead or demons. Today, the term will-o’-the-wisp is also used figuratively to describe something or someone ephemeral or difficult to pin down, something that it is impossible to get hold of. Originally, the phrase was rendered as Will of the wisp, describing a generic man named Will who carried a bundle of burning hay for a torch, or a wisp. Today, the will in will-o’-the-wisp is no longer capitalized, as the original meaning of the phrase has been lost. In America a will-o’-the-wisp is known as a ghost light or a spook light, in Australia it is known as the Min Min light, in the Scottish Highlands it is known as the Spunkie, in England will-o’-the-wisp is also known as pixie lights.


Lawson said: “Don’t go after this will-o’-the-wisp of a special trade deal with the European Union, which they will never give us, because other countries will ask for special deals of theirs.” (The Guardian)

It’s the only kind of light in cinema that deepens mystery rather than dispelling it – a will-o’-the-wisp that draws you onwards, off from the safe path and deeper into the dream. (The Telegraph)