Pronounced: rihl, noun

Notes: I’ve only heard this word in songs; teachers in school encouraged students to look up words they do not know, so I’ve tried to develop the habit. However, it turns out that this word has a meaning of which I was unaware.

Yesterday’s phrase

The phrase ignus fatuus means

  • a mysterious light seen over marshes or swamps (a will-o’-the-wisp)
  • something misleading, deceiving, or deluding
First usage

This phrase came into English in the mid-1500s

Background / Comments

Our phrase is Latin and means “foolish fire” or “giddy fire”. Presumably, using the Latin phrase sounds smarter than using one of the other many names for the same phenomenon. The word will-o’-the-wisp is “Will of the wisp” — a “wisp” being a bundle of sticks held together and used as a torch. Similarly, another word for this same thing is jack-o’-lantern (Jack of the lantern) — note that the carved pumpkin was called this because the flickering candle was reminiscent of a will-o’-the-wisp. Other words are friar’s lantern, hobby lantern, Spooklight, Marfa light, and several others. In the old times when flashlights did not exist and most travel was on foot, travelers would see the lights and think that they were being guided, but there was no one there, and the lights would often move away from them. This led to them getting a bad name and associated with evil. Because these lights would mislead travelers, the second definition came about.

Published by Richard

Christian, lover-of-knowledge, Texan, and other things.

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