Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin.
September 6th, 2016
Episode 639 of 797 episodes
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day for September 6, 2016 is: will-o'-the-wisp \will-uh-thuh-WISP\ noun 1 : a light that appears at night over marshy ground 2 : a misleading or elusive goal or hope Examples: "Why don't you try to communicate with your boyfriend and see if you can find the root of the dissatisfaction? Perhaps you can repair it before you go and dismantle your life. If the relationship has run its course, you know what you have to do. But do it for yourself, not for a 23-year-old will-o’-the-wisp." — Molly Ringwald, The Guardian, 12 December 2014 "While a company's purpose generally doesn't change, strategies and organizational structures do,whichcan make chasing 'alignment' between strategy and the organization feel like chasing an elusive will-o'-the-wisp." — Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe, Harvard Business Review (hbr.org), 16 May 2016 Did you know? 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.