willy-nilly

 

 

MEANINGS

 

whether desired or not and haphazardly

 

 

ORIGIN

 

This adverb is a contraction of the idiomatic phrase based on end-rhyme will I, nill I (or will he, nill he, etc.), meaning be I willing, be I unwilling (or be he willing, be he unwilling, etc.). The obsolete verb to nill, meaning not to will, is composed of the archaic adverb ne, meaning not, and to will.

The earliest known occurrence of the phrase is found in Lives of the Saints (993-6), by the Anglo-Saxon monk and writer Ælfric of Eynsham (circa 955-circa 1020):

He is ofer ealle þincg ælmihtig scyppend .
and he wolde swaðeah wite ðrowian for us .
nu is his eadmodnys us unwiðmetenlic .
forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode .
wille we . nelle we .
     translation:
He is over all things, Almighty Creator,
and He would nevertheless suffer punishment for us.
Now is His humility incomparable with ours,
because we are sinful, and ought to be humble,
will we, nill we.

In The Taming of the Shrew (around 1592), the English poet and dramatist William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes Petruchio say to Katharina:

                        Your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife; your dowry ’greed on;
And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.

The form will or nill was also sometimes used, for example by the English poet Edmund Spenser (circa 1552-99) in The Faerie Queene (1590):

He now, lord of the field, his pride to fill,
With foule reproches and disdaineful spight
Her vildly entertaines; and, will or nill,
Beares her away upon his courser light:
Her prayers nought prevaile; his rage is more of might.

When will and nill were contrasted, the former usually preceded, but the reverse order was sometimes used. For example, an early English version, written around 1450, of the Gesta Romanorum (a Latin collection of tales and anecdotes compiled at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries) contains the following:

The Tyraunt, the Theefe, is Iustices, Sherefis, and Baillies, that taken̛ a-way fro the poore men the golden̛ rynge, that is, her goodes, and sayen̛, “may I not take it, whan he yevetℏ [= gives] it me?” For whan the poore man hathe ought to do, nylle he wille he, he shaƚƚ put fortℏ his honde for to yeve hem [= give them].

The adverb willy-nilly is first recorded in A trick to catch the old-one (1608), by the English playwright Thomas Middleton (1580-1627):

Marke mee what I say, Ile tell thee such a tale in thine eare, that thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille, nille, and ride vp with mee thy selfe Contra voluntatem et professionem.

The variant nilly-willy is first attested in Fra-Diavolo; or, The Inn of Terracina (1833), a comic opera by the Irish violinist and composer Rophino Lacy (1795-1867):

People now-a-days never think of parting with their money handsomely: you must take it from them nilly-willy!

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