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Willy-Nilly : Phrases


Two slightly differing but related meanings. 'Whether it is with or against your will' and 'in a haphazard fashion'.



The origin centres around the first of those meanings. There are many spellings in early citations - 'wille we, nelle we', 'will he, nill he', 'will I, nill I', etc. The expression also appears later as 'nilly willy' or 'willing, nilling', or even, in a later humourous version 'william nilliam'.

The early meaning of the word nill is key to this. In early English nill was the opposite of will. That is, will meant to want to do something, nill meant to want to avoid it. So, combining the willy - 'I am willing' and nilly - 'I am unwilling' expresses the idea that it doesn't matter to me one way or the other.

The Latin phrase 'nolens, volens' means the same thing, although it isn't clear whether the English version is a simple translation of that.

There's also a, now archaic, phrase 'hitty missy' that had a similar derivation. That comes from 'hit he, miss he'.

The phrase dates back at least a millennium, with the earliest known version being the Old English text, Aelfric's Lives of Saints, circa 1000:

"Forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we."

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