These days, we think of a wild goose chase as being a pointless exercise, doing something that will lead us nowhere. You might think that the origin is obvious – after all, surely it’s difficult to chase and catch a wild goose – difficult to the point of being doomed and pointless from the start, perhaps. It seems a straightforward expression, at first glance. But this was not always the case.
The first known written instance of the expression is in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, from 1592. In Act 2, Scene 4, we find:
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.
We should take note here not just of Mercutio’s lines, where the expression is used, but also Romeo’s words immediately preceding Mercutio’s, and which Mercutio is responding to. In what context might we think of spurs, if not in relation to horse-riding? And indeed, this is the earlier meaning of our expression.
You are probably wondering where the resemblance is between geese and horses. The resemblance is in the formation a group of horses were lead in the chase – following a front horse, much like wild geese flying in a flock, each in its own place.
Now we return to the origins of the expression. As already stated, the earliest recorded reference is in Shakespeare. But that does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare introduced the expression to the language – it is much more likely that he was simply writing down a well known phrase, and its oral history may go back much earlier. It should be remembered that Shakespeare was writing for an audience, and I see no reason to believe that he wanted to confuse his spectators with strange, incomprehensible references.
If we look at other languages, we find some quite different expressions in this context. Firstly, in German, you might say ein Metzgergang machen, which literally means “make a butcher’s run”, as in the 18th century, butchers sometimes went to farmers for their stock and returned empty-handed, and similarly, sometimes their wares didn’t sell.
In Hungarian, when something is a futile undertaking, one would say: falra hányt borsó, which means “peas thrown at the wall”, the idea being that this is a totally pointless exercise, and in any case, peas just fall off the wall and don’t stick there, so you have gained nothing.
A nice expression to use in this context in Turkish, one which brings a lovely image to mind, is boşa kürek çekmek, which means “rowing on air”, obviously not a very fruitful activity, and a similarly fruitless exercise would be olmayacak duaya ‘amin’ demek, which means “saying ‘amen’ to a prayer that won’t be fulfilled”.
Over to Polish now, where the expression is szukanie wiatru w polu, which literally means “looking for wind in a field” – just as impossible to catch as a wild goose, if not more so, one might think!
While we are thinking about the wind, let’s take a look at this expression from Italian: correndo dietro un mulino a vento, literally “running after a windmill”, or an alternative might be fare brodo per gatti, “making broth for cats”, which perhaps says something about how cats are viewed!