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Willy nilly

Posted by Bruce Kahl on June 16, 2005

In Reply to: Willy nilly posted by David FG on June 16, 2005

: : Just to start things off, I wonder if anyone has come across this derivation. In Neal Stephenson's Baroque Trilogy (which is a very good read by the way, despite needing a handcart to lift) he writes willy nilly as 'will he, nill he'. I can't find any reference to that anywhere and it's quite possible Stephenson made it up. Having got most of the way through these books it's clear that he isn't short on imagination.

: : I've not seen that before - anyone else?

: I have seen that, a long time ago and I can't remember where. It strikes me as being a bit unlikely.


Although today many of us use "willy-nilly" to mean "haphazardly" (as in "She scattered wine bottles willy-nilly in her wake"), the original meaning was "willingly or unwillingly".

When "willy-nilly" first appeared in English around 1600, it was as a contraction of the phrase "will ye, nill ye," meaning "whether you (ye) are willing or not willing." And the archaic word "nill" found in "willy-nilly," which meant "to be unwilling," comes from the Latin word "nil," meaning "none" or "not," which arose as a contraction of the Latin "nihil," meaning "nothing."

For most of its history, "willy-nilly" has had this "whether you want to or not" meaning -- our "sloppily" or "haphazard" meaning is a fairly recent development.

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