The Grammarphobia Blog

What’s the origin of “willy-nilly”?

A: Where does the phrase “willy-nilly” come from?

Q: The first citation for “willy-nilly” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1608. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology says it’s a contraction of “will I, nill I” or “will he, nill he” or “will ye, nill ye.” The word “nill” is from the Old English “nyllan,” a combination of “ne” (no) and “willan” (will). The phrase “willy-nilly” means “unwillingly” or “haphazardly.”