Why we say: ‘Wild goose chase’

William Shakespeare is responsible for introducing a host of words and phrases into the English language, including ‘for goodness sake’, 'assassination’ and ‘all’s well that ends well’

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The Bard is credited for popularising ‘wild goose chase’ too. It was first used in Romeo and Juliet, although the meaning is different to how we know it today, namely a task that has no hope of succeeding or a pursuit for something unattainable. You would be forgiven for thinking the phrase is self-explanatory – trying to catch a wild goose is extremely difficult, so to try is to invite failure.

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To Shakespeare, however, it suggested something else. Romeo’s intelligent yet mischievous friend Mercutio has the honour of saying the phrase:

“Nay, if thy wits run the wild goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”

Mercutio, however is not talking about geese – the ‘wild goose chase’ was a 16th-century cross-country horse race. The rules of the race are not known for sure, but the general idea was for horses to follow a lead rider at a distance, copying his route exactly. The lead would twist and turn to make the course tricky to follow, causing people to compare the race to wild geese flying in formation.

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This meaning was lost over the centuries as the race decreased in popularity. By the 19th century, the phrase had been adapted to its modern-day meaning, with the ‘goose’ referring to, well, geese. In the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, the definition read: “A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following of a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy.”