Definition of will-o'-the-wisp in English:



  • 1A phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night over marshy ground, thought to result from the combustion of natural gases; ignis fatuus.

    • ‘I saw it now, a dull orange will-o'-the-wisp bobbing and winking through the trees.’
    • ‘When lit, the cloth can be made to dance like a will-o'-the-wisp in the dark - a stunt that would definitely not amuse a modern fire marshal.’
    • ‘Pale blue light, the colour of Egewe's hair or a will-o'-the-wisp, filled the room.’
    mirage, hallucination, apparition, phantasm, phantom, vision, spectre, fantasy, figment of the imagination, will-o'-the-wisp, trick of the light
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    1. 1.1A person or thing that is difficult or impossible to find, reach, or catch.
      • ‘As the years passed, he became even more of a will-o'-the-wisp; not to be pinned down; difficult to track.’
      • ‘She strained ever harder, blocking out all distractions, chasing a will-o'-the-wisp through uncharted paths in her own mind.’
      • ‘He was a will-o'-the-wisp, more of a concept than a man.’
      • ‘And yet if a writer succeeds in catching the will-o'-the-wisp she will go on existing, elusive and transformed, in the character she has created.’
      • ‘When confronted by the sacraments crisis, Louis XV had tried desperately to avoid treading on clerical toes and had pursued the will-o'-the-wisp of a ‘third way’ that could unite moderates against the fanatics on both sides.’


Early 17th century: originally as Will with the wisp, the sense of wisp being handful of (lighted) hay.