Willy-nilly word development

Posted by on February 03, 2014

18556_CorbisThere’s something about reduplication that makes it pleasing to the ear. Willy-nilly ticks that box and has the added appeal of a complex history. Let’s break the word down first. The verb will originally meant ‘want’ or ‘be willing’, and nill was its negative, from ne (‘not’) + will. Nill’s past tense is nould (just as will’s is would); both forms are now archaic, but I nill miss this chance to mention them because I nould like them to be forgotten.

Nill was used in the sense of being unwilling or not wanting (Tolkien: ‘I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill’), and also in the sense of rejecting or preventing (Thomas Jackson, 1615: ‘Many divine truths … we evidently refuse, or nill, when we come to question about their price’).

Will and nill often collocate in various ways. The old phrases willing or nilling and willing nilling both mean ‘whether willingly or unwillingly’, as does the Latin adverb nolens volens. Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy has the line: ‘henceforward there should be no willing and no nilling but with her’, while Celtic Fairy Tales, edited by Joseph Jacobs, has: ‘he wanted to marry Deirdre right off there and then, will she nill she marry him.’

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Macmillan Dictionary describes two main uses of willy-nilly: (1) when something happens whether you want it to or not, and (2) in a careless way, without planning. Sense 2 developed gradually through a sequence of semantic extensions, detailed by Radetzky, and a straw poll on Twitter shows it’s the only one many people use. But for others the older sense remains the norm: in a comment to my post on user-generated dictionaries, John Cowan said he hadn’t seen willy-nilly used in sense 2 before.

Radetzky’s research also shows how reduplication is associated cross-linguistically with randomness, haphazardness and lack of control, among other qualities. English, for instance, has the semantically similar shilly-shally, helter-skelter and pell-mell. So the spread in meaning from intent and wish to a lack of control has been both willy-nilly (sense 1) and anything but willy-nilly (sense 2).

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Comments (4)
  • I don’t think the Macmillan definition really captures the meaning of sense 2. To do something willy-nilly, as I would explain it, is to do it repeatedly and indiscriminantly (esp. without regard for whether it’s the appropriate thing to do in the circumstances). The Macmillan definition leaves out the “repeatedly” connotation.

    I don’t use the term. I percieve it as old fashioned, and that’s sense 2 I’m talking about.

    John Cowan is just weird. 😛

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 3rd February, 2014
  • That’s curious, Adrian. The word has never had a connotation of repeated action for me, at least not so much that it warrants inclusion in a dictionary definition. Macmillan’s definition is of course informed by corpus usage, and I don’t see the idea mentioned in other dictionaries either.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 3rd February, 2014
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