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What is a "Wild Goose Chase"?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 15, 2024
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A wild goose chase is a pursuit that is likely to prove pointless and unfruitful, as in “we went on a wild goose chase for the antique store she told us about, but we just couldn't find it.” This English idiom has been used since the 16th century, with the first recorded use occurring in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It may surprise you to learn that it actually has nothing to do with wild geese, despite the name.

This slang term references a type of horse race that was popular in some parts of England in the 16th century. In this race, the pack of horses would follow a leader, often adopting a formation that casually resembled a flock of geese. This was extremely challenging, and bettors often commented that it was difficult to predict the outcome of a wild goose chase, let alone profit from it.

When Shakespeare used it, he meant it in a metaphorical sense, referring to one of Romeo's harebrained plans as a “wild goose chase,” meaning that Romeo was embarking on an adventure that was likely to prove futile. He was referring to this as a situation in which one person sets a path that is difficult to follow, exactly like the lead horse in a wild goose chase. As often happened with colorful words and idioms in Shakespeare's work, the slang term was picked up by the general population.

Several 18th century dictionaries suggest that a wild goose chase is directly related to chasing wild geese, using the difficulty of managing and herding geese as an explanation for this idiom. This illustrates an example of backformation, in which people invent an origin for a word or phrase to come up with an explanation which makes sense to them, rather than researching the actual root of the idiom or word.

The wild goose chase in the sense of a horse race no longer occurs, but the idiom has lived on in modern English. One can go on such a chase for a particular location, person, or object, or for more abstract concepts like information and ideas. Many people can think of a few examples that they have been led on, both literally and metaphorically. In either case, people generally view it as a frustrating waste of time.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By hanley79 — On Sep 07, 2011

Of all the phrases that came from Shakespeare, this is one that I didn't know about. I've read many Shakespeare plays, but not Romeo and Juliet (yet), so I didn't know that the term "wild goose chase" came from Shakespeare at all.

I always kind of figured it came from a general sympathetic understanding between farmers who raised geese and knew chasing them was tiring and often pointless...

I can definitely say that I've been on a few wild goose chases. The most glaringly obvious version I can think of is when you do an online poll that promises to give you something free in the end, asks for as much personal information as you might fill out on your hospital paperwork, then fails to deliver anything because it conveniently glitches near the end of the poll.

And it does the information collection in steps, so you know it saved the information and didn't have to give you anything in return. A lot of effort and trouble with no reward -- that's a wild goose chase if I ever heard of one.

By SkittisH — On Sep 06, 2011

Wow, isn't it funny where we come up with our phrases and proverbs? If you think about it long enough, you realize that we use lots of phrases in day to day life that people get the general idea for, but don't actually mean the literal meaning for anymore.

In this case, what most people think a wild goose chase is about is right -- it's about a frustrating zig-zagging pursuit of something you probably won't catch in the end.

That sounds like it's referring to chasing a goose, but -- naturally -- English has got to have a more colorful background and make the origin of the term an English play referencing a phrase about geese that references an an activity about horses that in itself references geese again!

Now I'm wondering if "harebrained" really is referring to a person with the brain of a rabbit. I think I'll read that WiseGEEK article next.

By honeybees — On Sep 06, 2011

Feeling like you are on a wild goose chase can be a very frustrating feeling. My husband and I were looking for some land that was for sale.

We saw the land advertised in the paper, and also on the real estate company website. We were given a street address and map location, but there was no particular house number yet.

The pictures on the website showed a real estate sign out along the side of the road. We found the road with no trouble, but never were able to find any kind of land for sale.

We tried more than once to find that land, and were very frustrated the second time we went and still didn't find anything. We felt like we were just driving around on a wild goose chase the whole time.

By SarahSon — On Sep 05, 2011

My dad has taken my mom on more than one wild goose chase. They travel a lot of the country by car, and my dad is always trying to find someone he knew many years ago.

Sometimes he will have a phone number and an address, but many times he just has a general idea of where they live.

They have spent many hours looking for people and my mom always feels like they are on a wild goose chase. There have been a few times they have been successful, but more times than not, they have never been able to find who they were looking for.

By drtroubles — On Sep 05, 2011

@lonelygod - I really hate when bosses do stuff like that. There is nothing worse than wasting a whole day on a wild goose chase. To be honest, my mom is really bad for sending me on a wild goose chase. She is always asking for some obscure ingredient when she is experimenting with her cooking and she always sends me to the store to look for something.

We have a pretty basic grocery store near our house, so I know whenever she gets it in her head that it is time to make something exotic that I am in for a world of angst. I remember when she was into Indian food and she sent me for saffron. Let's just say, mission impossible.

By lonelygod — On Sep 04, 2011

My boss loves to send me on a wild goose chase every time she gets a new idea in her head. Usually it has something to do with a new product she has spotted and thinks would work great in our office.

I remember a few months ago she sent me after a very specific kind of stationary that she had read about.

The hunt for the stationary was definitely a wild goose chase. I went to several shops and not one had stationary that matched her description. After wasting hours looking for her paper I went to the office only to learn she had ordered it online, from the exclusive maker of it. She forgot to tell me that she had found it and to stop looking.

By oasis11 — On Sep 04, 2011

For me it seems that every year around the holidays I go on a wild goose chase in order to find the perfect gifts for my children. It seems that everyone wants the same toys and it can be difficult to find the latest and greatest technology items during that time.

I would go to a number of stores just to hear that the items are sold out. I think that the wild goose chase idiom is really fitting because it seems like I have gone to every store imaginable and still could not find what I was looking for. This is really frustrating.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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