Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Vrinda. Vrinda Wonders, “Why do we have idioms and phrases?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Vrinda!
Would you believe that the defrazzalator on our OctoPlasmaBot 9000 just broke? We needed a new one badly, so we set out in search of a replacement.
We checked every grocery store, gas station, yogurt shop, and shoe retailer in a 100-mile radius. Unfortunately, our search turned out to be nothing but a wild goose chase. Apparently, they don't even make defrazzalators or OctoPlasmaBot 9000s any longer!
You're probably wondering what in the world we're talking about. You probably already knew that defrazzalators and OctoPlasmaBot 9000s were SO last year. And what do these things have to do with wild geese anyway?
“Wild goose chase" is an idiom, which is a saying that has a meaning unrelated to the actual words in the phrase. A wild goose chase — literally — would mean chasing after a wild goose. We're not sure why anyone would do that, but it does sound kind of fun.
Most people use the phrase “wild goose chase" to mean a fruitless search or a long and ultimately useless pursuit. It can also be used to refer to a task that is overly complicated relative to the expected benefit. For example, searching for hours for something that doesn't exist any longer would definitely qualify as a wild goose chase!
While chasing after a wild goose in real life would probably qualify as a long and ultimately useless pursuit, the phrase “wild goose chase" didn't originate from that literal interpretation. Instead, the phrase originally was used in conjunction with a type of horse race popular in England in the 16th century.
Englishmen on a “wild goose chase" would follow a lead horse that could go off in any direction. The other riders had to follow the leader's course accurately at precise intervals, kind of like wild geese following their leader in formation.
In this sense, the phrase first referred to an erratic course taken by a leader and followed by others. Shakespeare used the phrase in this sense in Romeo and Juliet.
The phrase's “follow the leader" meaning and horse-racing origins were eventually forgotten. Over time, the phrase came to mean a hopeless quest…much like actually chasing a wild goose would be long and ultimately pointless.
Today, some people purposefully send people on a wild goose chase as a practical joke. These are sometimes referred to by other phrases, such as a fool's errand or a snipe hunt.
For example, a snipe hunt involves a search for an imaginary animal — the elusive snipe — and usually involves ridiculous methods of catching it, such as running around the woods with a net and a bag. If someone ever wants to send you snipe hunting, kindly thank them but tell them you'll stick to real, rather than imaginary, animals!