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01:00 Sun 06th Jan 2002 |

Q. What is it

A. Metaphorically a will-o'-the-wisp is an elusive or delusive goal or spurious hope, but its literal meaning is the same as ignis fatuus.

Q. What on earth is ignis fatuus

A. It's Medieval Latin for fatuous or foolish fire. It's a meteorological term referring to those mysterious lights seen at night flickering over marshes, which, when approached, advance, always just out of reach. The phenomenon is generally believed to be due to the spontaneous ignition of marsh gas, which consists mostly of methane and which is produced by the decomposition of dead plant matter.

In popular legend it is considered ominous and is often purported to be the soul of one who has been rejected by hell. According to a Russian superstition these wandering fires are the spirits of still-born children which flit between heaven and the inferno.

Q. And where does the name will-o'-the-wisp come from

A. First recorded in 1661, it is derived from Will, short for William, plus wisp, a bundle of hay used as a torch. Other names for the phenomenon are Jack-o'-lantern, spunkie, walking fire, fair maid of Ireland, peg-a-lantern, elf-fire, kit-o'-the-canstick and Friar's Lanthorn.

Q. What about Willo the Wisp

A. Willo the Wisp was a children's programme first aired on BBC television in 1980. Narrated by Kenneth Williams the cartoon was about strange goings-on in Doyle Woods. The Characters included Arthur the cockney caterpillar, Mavis Cruet the plump fairy, Carwash the intellectual cat, Moog the dim dachshund and Evil Edna the villainous television set. Williams's face was used as the wisp, Willo. He was a ghost-like gossip and the only character with any real brains. He rarely joined in with the action, instead narrating the activities of the forest freaks. Stories often involved Evil Edna turning a member of the cast into a toad with lightning bolts from her antennae.

Q. Anything else

A. '"The Will-o'-the-Wisp Is in the Town," Says the Moor-Woman' was a story by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1865; and Le Feu follet (translated variously as The Fire Within and Will-o'-the-Wisp) a 1931 novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which was made into a film by Louis Malle in 1963.

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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