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’


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.


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.


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.”