American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
- n. A phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night, possibly caused by spontaneous combustion of gases emitted by rotting organic matter. Also called friar's lantern, jack-o'-lantern, will-o'-the-wisp, wisp.
- n. Something that misleads or deludes; an illusion.
Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia
- A meteoric light that sometimes appears in summer and autumn nights, and flits in the air a little above the surface of the earth, chiefly in marshy places, near stagnant waters, or in churchyards. It is generally supposed to be produced by the spontaneous combustion of small jets of gas (carbureted or phosphureted hydrogen) generated by the decomposition of vegetable or animal matter. It has been popularly known in England by such names as will-o'-the-wisp, from its resemblance to a lighted wisp of straw, Jack-o'-lantern, corpse-candle, kit-of-the-candle-stick, etc. Before the introduction of the general drainage of swamp-lands, the ignis fatuus was an ordinary phenomenon in the marshy districts of England. It is still regarded by the peasantry with superstitious awe, as of evil portent, or as the treacherous signal of evil spirits seeking to lure benighted travelers to destruction.
- n. A will o' the wisp.
- n. figuratively A delusion, a false hope.
GNU Webster's 1913
- A phosphorescent light that appears, in the night, over marshy ground, supposed to be occasioned by the decomposition of animal or vegetable substances, or by some inflammable gas; -- popularly called also
Will-with-the-wisp, or Will-o'-the-wisp, and Jack-with-a-lantern, or Jack-o'-lantern.
- Fig.: A misleading influence; a decoy.
- n. an illusion that misleads
- n. a pale light sometimes seen at night over marshy ground
- Modern Latin, from ignis (meaning "fire") + fatuus (meaning "foolish"). Literally "foolish fire". (Wiktionary)
- Medieval Latin : Latin ignis, fire + Latin fatuus, foolish. (American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
“Let not the magic arts of that worthless Sanford lead you, like an ignis fatuus from the path of rectitude and virtue!”
“And yet they say that the ignis fatuus (as it is called), which sometimes even settles on a wall, has not much heat, perhaps as much as the flame of spirit of wine, which is mild and soft.”
“When thou rannest up Gadshill in the night to catch my horse, if I did not think thou hadst been an ignis fatuus or a ball of wildfire, there's no purchase in money.”
“It appears, however, that of all flame that of spirit of wine is the softest, unless perhaps ignis fatuus be softer, and the flames or sparklings arising from the sweat of animals.”
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