Someone on a wild goose chase is never going to achieve the thing they’re after. It can be used to refer to something physical, emotional, mental, etc. It was popularized through its inclusion in “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare. Here, it was used with a very different meaning—a reference to a type of horse race.
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“Wild goose chase” Meaning
To go on a “wild goose chase” refers to a task that’s doomed to fail. If someone goes on a wild goose chase, they’re pursuing something they’re never going to find or working towards something they will never achieve.
It’s a hopeless quest that others can tell is never going to work out, but the person engaged in can’t see clearly. It’s possible to use this phrase in many situations due to its metaphorical nature. There is no physical goose involved when the idiom is used in a conversation. It’s used as a metaphor for a type of quest and the result that’s bound to make itself clear eventually.
Origins of “wild goose chase”
“Go on a wild goose chase” is one of the best-known phrases that William Shakespeare introduced into common language. The first recorded use of the phrase was in his famous play, “Romeo and Juliet.” It appeared in 1592. The quote reads:
Romeo: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match.
Mercutio: 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.
In this scene, Mercutio is conversing with Romeo, and he asks Benvolio to come into the conversation to bolster his position. Romeo doesn’t like this. He declares that he’s “cry a match” or declare himself the winner if Mercutio gives up on what is essentially a battle of wits.
He references a horse-riding “switch” and “spur” in these lines. He’s bringing in an image of a horse riding at full speed. When Mercutio responds, it becomes clear that Romeo is metaphorically describing himself riding in a specific type of horse race. A “wild goose chase” was a horse race in which the horses followed a lead horse at a distance. As the horses moved together, it created what looked like a formation of geese flying in the sky.
While Shakespeare may have popularized the phrase, it did appear prior to its inclusion in “Romeo and Juliet.” In A Discource of Horsmanshippe, published in 1593, the author Gervase Markham describes the rules of the race Romeo and Mercutio were alluding to:
The Wild-goose chase being started, in which the hind∣most Horse is bound to follow the formost, and you hauing the leading, hold a hard hand of your Horse, and make hym gallop softly at great ease […]
By the time the early 1800s came around, the idiom had taken on the meaning commonly used today. For example, in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1811, the following quote appears:
A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy.
When to Use the Idiom
It’s possible to use “go on a wild goose chase” among friends, family members, and work colleagues. This is due to the fact that it’s applicable in a wide range of situations. One might use it in an attempt to stop a friend from doing something chaotic or dangerous. It’s a good warning that implies failure is the only possible option without being harsh enough to say this outright.
For example, if a friend is pursuing a romantic relationship with someone you know isn’t interested in them. You might tell them they’re on a “wild goose chase” and imply that they’re better off forgetting about their interest. In a more professional situation, one employee might say to another that they believe their task is a wild goose chase. Or, in a business meeting, use the phrase as a way of gently questioning a chosen path.
- Don’t you realize this is a wild goose chase?
- She’s on a wild goose chase; she just doesn’t know it yet.
- I’m trying to make sure I’m not on a wild goose chase.
- Do you think we’re on a wild goose chase?
- Is this a wild goose chase, or are we actually getting somewhere?
Why Do Writers Use “wild goose chase?”
Writers use “go on a wild goose chase” in the same way and for the same reasons that people use the phrase in everyday conversations. It’s easily incorporated into a variety of conversations. One character might use it to pass judgment on another, the narrator might use it when describing a situation, and more. Idioms are a common way that writers connect dialogue between characters to the real-life conversations that people have in the real world.
That being said, sometimes idioms have the opposite effect. If they’re not used smoothly and convincingly, they might make a literary work, or at least the dialogue, feel fake or forced. Some idioms are so overused that they’ve become cliché. While “go on a wild goose chase” is commonly used, it’s not as cliché as some.
It appeared in “Romeo and Juliet.” When it was used in its original context, a reference to a type of horse race. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the phrase took on its contemporary meaning.
The term originated in horse racing and evolved to have the meaning it does today. Like most idioms, it went through a process of change that resulted in its contemporary definition. It’s the perfect example of an idiom in that one needs history with the phrase to know what it means.
In English, the “goose” is used as a metaphor for describing a hopeless race. If you’re on a wild goose chase, you’re on a hopeless search or pursuing something you’re never going to achieve.
“Go on a wild goose chase” is an idiomatic metaphor. It’s used when someone wants to describe the hopeless nature of someone’s quest. It’s only used metaphorically. There is no real goose involved in reality.
The tone is judgemental in some instances and sympathetic in others, depending on who is using the phrase. It can be used to make fun of someone whose hopelessly seeking something or used when one friend is trying to help another realize the flaw in their actions.