Early recorded use refers to a type of 16th century horse race where everyone had to try to follow the erratic course of the lead horse, like wild geese have to follow their leader in formation. Mentioned in 1593 in the English poet Gervase Markham’s book about horsemanship. Also mentioned in the William Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, scene 4 by the character Mercutio: "Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five." Mentioned in Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). Common use in the current may be the origin for the sport sense.
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- (figuratively) A futile search, a fruitless errand; a useless and often lengthy task whose execution is inordinately complex relative to the value of the outcome.
- I went on a wild-goose chase all over the town looking for that adapter until I discovered they no longer make them.
- Diagnosing this software application's problems is a wild-goose chase because it is built in an environment that has poor debugging tools.
- Synonym: merry dance
- 1912, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World:
- From the beginning he has never concealed his belief that Professor Challenger is an absolute fraud, that we are all embarked upon an absurd wild-goose chase and that we are likely to reap nothing but disappointment and danger in South America, and corresponding ridicule in England.
- As wild-goose chase literally means "a chase for wild geese", it is usually hyphenated as shown for clarity. The form without the hyphen is also commonly seen, and can be construed as a "wild chase", not an inevitably fruitless one, after a possibly domesticated and flightless goose, rather than after a wild goose.