Where Did It Come From?
Romeo: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I'll cry a match.
Mercutio: Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?
Shakespeare did not, however, just pull the expression out of thin air. He was making a play on words, using a contemporary term for a type of horse race, called a "wild goose chase". In this type of race, the first rider would set off across the countryside on a convoluted course of turns, loops, and backtracks. The next rider would then have to follow his course exactly, copying all his twists and turns, followed by the next racer and the next. In this usage "wild goose chase" referred to the formation of the race, with riders following after each other, like geese flying in formation.
The Wild-goose chase being started, in which the hind∣most Horse is bound to follow the formost, and you hauing the leading, hold a hard hand of your Horse, and make hym gallop softly at great ease, insomuch, that perceiuing your aduersarie striue to take the leading from you, suffer him to come so néere you, that his Horses head may wel nye touch your Horses buttocke, which when you sée, clappe your left spurre in your horses side, and wheele him suddainlie halfe about on your right hand, and then take him vp againe, till such time that he be come to you againe: thus may you doo of eyther hand which you will, and in neuer a one of these turnes, but you shall throw him that rides against you, at least twenty or thirtie yardes behind you, so that whilst you ride at your ease, he shal be forst continually to come vp to you vpon the spur•es, which must wearie the best Horse in the world.Also in thys match, gette your law in the Wild-goose chase, which is most vsually twelue score to bee twentie score, that if your aduersary chaunce to haue more spéede then you, yet with your truth and toughnes, you may reco∣uer him: for that Horse that lets another ouer-runne hym twenty score at the first in a wild-goose chase, it is pyttie he should euer be hunter.
Esteeme a horse, according to his pace
But loose no wagers on a wilde goose chase
Though actually, I suppose it could be taken both ways. The 1686 book The Gentleman's Recreation (pictured) by Nicholas Cox also contains a description of the complicated horse race: "The Wildgoose Chase received its Name from the manner of the flight which is made by Wildgeese, which is generally one after another: so the two Horses after the running of Twelvescore Yards, had liberty, which Horse soever could get the leading, to ride what ground he pleas’d; the hindmost Horse being bound to follow him, within a certain distance agreed on by Articles, or else to be whipt up by the Triers or Judges which rode by, and which ever Horse could distance the other won the Match."
Meanwhile, the use of the term "wild goose chase" in the other sense seems to have been catching on. It is used in The Spanish Gipsie, a 1623 play by English playwrights Thomas Middleton and William Rowley:
– Diego: Ha, ha, ha! some one
That hath slept well to night, should a but see mee
Thus merry by my selfe, might justly think
I were not well in my wits.
– Lewys: Diego!
– Diego: Yes ’tis I, and I have had a fine fegary,
The rarest, Wild-goose chase.
Eventually the wild goose chase race seems to have fallen out of fashion and been more or less forgotten; when Samuel Johnson put out his A Dictionary Of The English Language in 1755, he included only this definition of "wild goose chase": "a pursuit of something as unlikely to be caught as the wildgoose."