wild goose chase

In modern usage, a wild goose chase is a fruitless endeavor, a hopeless quest. But it was not always so. The original sense was kind of horse race where one rider would lead a group of pursuers along an erratic course, much like a flock of geese might follow its leader. Like so many words and phrases, this one is first set down on paper by the Bard. From the 1592 Romeo and Juliet (II.iv):

Nay, if our wits run the Wild-Goose chase, I am done: For thou hast more of the Wild-Goose in one of thy wits, then I am sure I haue in my whole fiue.

Shakespeare here is making a metaphorical allusion to the horse race. Such an actual race is referred to in Nicholas Breton’s 1602 The Mothers Blessing:

Esteeme a horse, according to his pace, But loose no wagers on a wilde goose chase.

Over time, this type of racing fell out of fashion and people forgot the origin. As this happened they reinterpreted the phrase to mean to chase a wild goose, instead of to give chase like a wild goose and the modern sense of a fruitless errand came into being. From a 1754 letter by Horace Walpole:

Don’t let me think, that if you return, you will set out upon every wild-goose chase, sticking to nothing.

And from Francis E. Trollope’s 1876 A Charming Fellow:

His journey to London on such slender encouragement is a wild-goose chase!

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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