Ignis Fatuus et al.
Bill Long 2/16/06
At long last, after seven months of focus on other issues, I am returning to the dictionary. By "the dictionary," I mean the words in the Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which is the official dictionary of my spelling bees in 2006. But, as luck would have it, the first word or concept that I wanted to exposit, ignis fatuus, cannot be used at the Bee because it is a double word. Alas, I will therefore be spending a lot of time studying a word that won't even appear on the "test"--which yields a perfect insight into my mind.
Literally translated as "fool's fire," ignis fatuus originally meant a phosphorescent light seen hovering or flitting over marshy ground, which was supposed to be due to the spontaneous combustion of an inflammable gas derived from decaying organic matter. The OED notes that, when approached, the ignis fatuus appeared to recede and vanish, before reappearing elsewhere. This led to the idea that such a 'fire' was due to a spirit of the swamp which wanted to lead travellers astray. Thus, the figurative use of the term, which is not very much in use today, means "any delusive guiding principle, hope, aim." An ignis fatuus can also be a "vain hope" or "theoretical speculation." The emphasis on the deceptive nature of the ignus fatuus is evident in a 1663 quotation: An Ignis Fatuus that bewitches And leads Men into Pools and Ditches."
But the figurative uses of ignis fatuus are the most common in English, even though the phrase has just about fallen out of use. From 1599: "To fetch light from their Heathenish Ignis fatuus" (delusion or deception). Then, combining this with another long-abandoned but useful term, from 1631, we have: "For Sir Arthur Savage, he is the primum mobile, the ignis fatuus that misleads all the rest." What is the primum mobile? It was the outermost sphere added to the "inner" eight or nine spheres in the Middle Ages, which was supposed to revolve around the earth in 24-hours. The Ptolemaic system of astronomy was bequeathed to the Middle Ages, but the system was "Christianized" in that period by the following "diagram": Beyond the region of fire lay the spheres of the seven planets. The firmament was the eighth heaven, the crystalline was the ninth, and the primum mobile was the great void beyond the ninth. In Dante's time the whole was said continually to revolve around the earth, and was encompassed in its turn by the empyrean. So this has taken us away from ignis fatuus for a moment, but it helps explain the humor of this 1631 quotation.
The phrase seemed to be a favorite of John Adams, for in 1777 he could say, "What an ignis fatuus this ambition is..." while in a later letter, he wrote:
"Vanity I am sensible, is my cardinal Vice and cardinal Folly and I am in continual Danger, when in Company, of being led an ignis fatuus Chase by it, without the strictest caution and watchfulness over my self."
In this quotation, ignis fatuus is used by Adams as an adjective, something delusive, rather than the delusion itself. But to show that the phrase still could be used well into the 20th century, we need only to quote Justice Roger Traynor of the California Supreme Court. Traynor was one of the most significant state court justices of the 20th century (he is often mentioned in he same breath with Justice Brandeis, who was on the New York Court of Appeals before becoming a Supreme Court justice), and one of the reasons for the high regard in which he is held is his eloquence, which is rather rare in a judge. He once said,
"It is the exceptional legislator who is guided by fiat lux (the Vulgate translation of 'yiyeh 'or' or "Let there be light") rather than the murky light of ignis fatuus."
In recent days we learned that a British scientist, A.A. Mills, has taken up the study of "will o' the wisps," (the ignis fatuus) and discovered that the modern condescending attitude toward these swamp clouds is not justified. Perhaps not. But for me the word's utility resides in its figurative association with something illusory, vain, or delusive. We never can have too many words to describe those things.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long