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A Will-o’-the-Wisp

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Ruth in Cincinnati, Ohio, is curious about the lyrics to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “Maria” from the movie The Sound of Music. Maria, a nun who’s not quite a good fit for the abbey, is described as “a flibbertigibbet, a will-o’-the-wisp, a clown.” What’s a will-o’-the-wisp, anyway? This term now means “an elusive goal” or “a misleading person,” but its roots lie in old folklore involving glowing swamp gas arising from decaying vegetation. Hundreds of years ago, this phenomenon lured people into walking into bogs or briar patches on dark nights. These mishaps were thought to be the work of a mischievous sprite called Will of the Torch or Will with the Torch, and later Will of the Wisp or Will with the Wisp, the word wisp being an old term for “a bundle of sticks or a handful of straw.” In parts of England, this sneaky fellow went by the name Jack of the Lantern — now memorialized in our own glowing Jack-o-Lantern. A flibbertigibbet is “a flighty person” or “someone garrulous.” Although this word’s etymology is uncertain, its sound suggests the idea of someone chattering. This is part of a complete episode.

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