• Paul Anthony Jones

Willy-nilly

(adv.) haphazardly, randomly

Most popular on HH this week was the fact that the word willy-nilly, meaning “randomly” or “haphazardly”, began life as a contraction of an old phrase “will I, nill I”—meaning “if I be willing, if I be unwilling”.

People have been doing things willy-nilly since the early 1600s, when this contraction first began to appear in the language. The full version, will I nill I, is much older, and has been unearthed in documents dating from as far back as the eleventh century.

Another Old English version was would I or nould I, which likewise dates from the 1000s and survived in English right through to the nineteenth century. By the Middle English period, people were saying will or nill to mean much the same thing, while an extended willing or nilling emerged in the mid 1500s, and a back-to-front nilling-willing crept into use in the later seventeenth century.

Of all of these forms, however, it’s the rhythmical willy-nilly that has survived the test of time and remains in use to this day.

Sadly the same can’t be said of william-nilliam, a version that emerged in the slang of the early 1900s—although the campaign to revive it starts here...


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