It went thataway.
Dear Word Detective: I stumbled upon your site as I was trying to find the meaning of the word “smithereens.” My wife blurted it out this morning and we laughed for ten minutes about how we both had heard the word and used it but didn’t know exactly what it meant or originated. Your site clarified it. As I read it your answer, an old movie was playing on the TV and the phrase “on a wild goose chase” was spoken. Again I wondered where that came from. Maybe you could check it out for us. — Earl Barker.
Okey-doke. I’m always glad to be of help, and I usually learn something myself. Sometimes, in fact, I learn that I have already written a column on the word or phrase, but cannot remember a single smidgen of what I wrote. Incidentally, has anyone seen my left shoe?
“Smithereens” is a good example. I wrote about it less than three years ago, but had to look at my web archives to refresh my so-called memory. Meaning “small bits or pieces,” “smithereens” is almost always encountered either in the phrase “blown to smithereens” or in the alliterative “smashed to smithereens.” “Smithereens” first appeared in English in 1829 in the form “smiddereens,” and most likely was borrowed from the Irish “smidirin,” meaning “small bit or fragment.” One thing I didn’t mention in my original column was that “smithereens” appears to be closely related (through Scots) to “smidgen,” meaning “a tiny amount.” Another interesting fact is that you can’t have a single “smithereen.” The noun only exists in plural form, although you can “smithereen” something by smashing it to bits.
“Wild goose chase” turns out to be more interesting than I first thought. We use the phrase today to mean “a pursuit of something unattainable” or “an exhausting and ultimately fruitless search” (as in “Bob said that almost any shop in town would carry a left-handed widget, but it turned into a wild goose chase and we gave up after two hours”). The logical assumption is that the phrase simply refers to the impossibility of catching a fleeing wild goose.
But the original meaning of “wild goose chase,” when it first appeared in the late 16th century, was entirely different and presumably less frustrating. A “wild goose chase” was a type of cross-country horse race in which riders pursued a lead rider on whatever course he set, like wild geese following the leader of their flock. Opinions vary on the rules of the chase, with some saying the riders had to follow each other at set distances, which doesn’t seem like much of a race to me. Another version, more likely in my view, has the lead rider setting the course only as long as he held the lead. (I say “he” because, in the 16th century, one can assume these were men.)
“Wild goose chase” was first used in a figurative sense by Shakespeare to mean a convoluted or erratic course of thought or action on which one person follows another, much as we might today say conspiracy theorists follow each other “down the rabbit hole” of illogic. But the “follow the leader” sense of the phrase faded as its horse-racing origin was forgotten, and “wild goose chase” came to mean simply any convoluted and ultimately pointless quest.