will o' » willow

Chiefly in:   willow the wisp

Classification: English

Spotted in the wild:

  • Armillaria mellea is not the brightest glowing species on agar culture, however on wood substrates, the mycelium is reported to glow much brighter. The phenomenon has been referred to as “foxfire” or “willow the wisp”. Armillaria is a pathogen of trees; whole forests can be wiped out he invading fungus, leaving “ghost” trees. (bioart.co.uk)
  • Notice how the woman’s face is drawn with character and subtlety and contrast this with how her lower body is only suggested in a willow-the-wisp kind of way. (Mr Whistler's Art)
  • For musicians, the willow-the-wisp of perfect sound quality is the last of the parameters that troubles us. (Musical Pointers, CD review)
  • The hushed, scurrying strings of the first subject bring a ‘willow-the-wisp’ quality evocative of the flurry of fairies’ wings. (Music Teachers (UK), online journal, 2001)
  • The letters trace an ongoing conversation in language that Emerson described as having a “willow-the-wisp quality” (Simmons 126), fragmentary and allusive as if “caught from some dream” (Simmons 1). (Janice Battiste, "A Good Aunt is More to a Poet Than a Patron: Mary Moody Emerson, a Model of Self-Reliance". WILLA, Vol. 5. Fall 1996.)
  • I’ve also thought of some sort of ghostly apparition, in your face willow the wisp or something like that. (ghosts.org, Dec 6, 1998)

Analyzed or reported by:

  • Ken Lakritz (contributed on this site)

The willow tree is traditionally associated with nefarious magical forces and spirits.

The eggcorn is particularly common in British sources, maybe influenced by the popular BBC children’s series _Willo the Wisp_ from the 80s, which is often quoted as “Willow the Wisp”.

The semantic closeness of the adjectives _wispy_ and _willowy_ may also play into this.

| link | entered by Chris Waigl, 2005/10/30 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Noah Andrade , 2005/12/14 at 2:56 am

    Interesting. The name for what is written here as “Willow the Wisp” is actually “Will ‘o the Wisp”. The term comes from haunting lights that were believed to be angered spirits of the dead. Their ‘will’ was to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom. Hence “Will of the Wisp” or “Will ‘o the wisp.”

    So, everything here is incorrect. Sheesh.

  2. 2

    Commentary by Chris Waigl , 2005/12/14 at 3:26 am

    Well, yes, this is what this entry says. This site collects errors, after all.

  3. 3

    Commentary by pat schwieterman , 2005/12/17 at 6:27 am

    Noah’s implicit etymology for “will-o’-the-wisp” is somewhat eggcornish in its own right. In the OED’s earliest citations, the word appears as “will with the wisp”; “will” is just the proper name “Will,” and a “wisp” is a bundle of twisted hay used as a makeshift torch.

    British sprites often bear common names like “Will,” “Robin,” “Meg,” and so on, and a number of other dialectal phrases for the concept of the will-o’-the-wisp take the form of a common first name plus “with a lantern/wisp/wad,” etc. Folklorist Elizabeth Mary Wright provides a number of examples: “Billy-wi’-t’wisp,” “Jack-a-lantern,” “Jenny-wi’-t’-lantren [sic],” “Joan-the-wad,” “Kitty-wi’- the-wisp,” “Peg-a-Lantern,” and “Peggy-lantern” (Rustic Speech and Folk-lore, pp. 200-1).

  4. 4

    Commentary by Mary Dennis , 2006/06/28 at 2:04 am

    Thank you for enlightening me!

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