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

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Pronunciation: /wɪləðəˈwɪsp/


1A phosphorescent light seen hovering or floating at night on marshy ground, thought to result from the combustion of natural gases.
Example sentences
  • Pale blue light, the colour of Egewe's hair or a will-o'-the-wisp, filled the room.
  • 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.
  • I saw it now, a dull orange will-o'-the-wisp bobbing and winking through the trees.
1.1A person or thing that is difficult or impossible to reach or catch.
Example sentences
  • 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.
  • As the years passed, he became even more of a will-o'-the-wisp; not to be pinned down; difficult to track.
  • 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'.

  • jack from Late Middle English:

    In the Middle Ages Jack, a pet form of John, was used to refer to any ordinary man, much as Tom, Dick, and Harry is today. By the 16th century it also meant a young man, and from this we get an alternative name for the knave (from the Old English for ‘boy’) in cards. In the 18th century a jack was a labourer, which gives us the second part of words like lumberjack (mid 19th century) and steeplejack (late 19th century). A jack was also an unskilled worker as contrasted with the master of a trade who had completed an apprenticeship, from which we get the saying jack of all trades and master of none. On the other hand, the apprentice could assert his equality with the words Jack is as good as his master. See also jockey

    A jack can also be a thing of smaller than normal size. Examples include the jack in bowls—a smaller bowl placed as a mark for the players to aim at—and jack as in Union Jack (late 17th century), which is strictly speaking a small version of the national flag flown on board ship. Jack-o-lantern as a name for a pumpkin lantern made at Halloween looks back to an earlier use of the phrase. In the 17th century it was a name for a will-o'-the-wisp (early 17th century), a light seen hovering at night over marshy ground, from another common first name—exchanging the idea of Jack with a lantern for Will with a ‘wisp’, or handful of lighted hay. I'm all right, Jack is an early 20th-century catchphrase used to express selfish complacency, which became the title of a film starring Peter Sellers in 1959. The Jack Russell terrier is named after a 19th-century English clergyman, known as ‘the Sporting Parson’, who was famed in hunting circles for breeding these terriers. Today a jackpot (late 19th century) is a large cash prize in a game or lottery. The term was originally used in a form of poker, where the pool or pot accumulated until a player could open the bidding with two jacks or better.

Words that rhyme with will-o'-the-wisp

crisp, lisp, wisp

For editors and proofreaders

Line breaks: will-o'-the-wisp

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