Q: I suppose you’re going to inform me that, as has happened with so many other words, the meaning of “willfully” now has a positive connotation. The Daily Kos recently cited a study showing that the African gray parrot “willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy.”
A: No, “willfully” hasn’t changed. The writer no doubt meant “willingly,” not “willfully.” The headline on that Jan. 14, 2020, article, “African gray parrots voluntarily show kindness to others,” is a clue.
In an article on the kindness, even altruism apparently shown by parrots, the appropriate adverb would have been “willingly,” a positive term meaning voluntarily or gladly, not “willfully,” a negative one meaning deliberately, obstinately, even maliciously.
Here’s a fuller excerpt from the article: “It’s been known for a few years that some other higher primates (especially orangutans) will voluntarily help others, especially if they think they’ll get something in return, and that doesn’t seem too surprising. But a nicely conceived test of the very intelligent African gray parrot shows that it willfully helps other parrots out of what appears to be empathy when presented with the opportunity.”
Most of the 10 standard dictionaries we regularly consult include the two terms, without definitions, as adverbial forms of the adjectives “willful” and “willing.” In other words, “willfully” means in a willful manner and “willingly” in a willing manner.
Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) is one of the few standard dictionaries to define the two adverbs. It uses “wilfully,” the British spelling, for the word Americans usually spell as “willfully.” Here are Lexico’s definitions and examples:
“willingly: Readily; of one’s own free will. she went willingly.”
“wilfully (US willfully): 1. With the intention of causing harm; deliberately. she denies four charges of wilfully neglecting a patient. 2. With a stubborn and determined intention to do as one wants, regardless of the consequences. he had wilfully ignored the evidence.”
The adverbs were derived from their corresponding adjectives. The first, “willing,” was recorded in compounds in the late 800s; the second, originally spelled “wilful,” is believed to have existed by about 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, though there are no surviving examples in Old English writing.
As for the meaning of the adjectives, Merriam-Webster says in usage notes that “willing implies a readiness and eagerness to accede to or anticipate the wishes of another,” while “willful implies an obstinate determination to have one’s own way.”
Getting back to the adverbs, the older of the two, “willingly,” first appeared in writing in the 900s, spelled willendlice, according to the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence.
(The -líce suffix in Old English, precursor to the “-ly” ending we know today, was used to form adverbs out of adjectives. The modern spelling, “willingly,” evolved in the mid-1500s.)
The earliest Oxford citation for “willingly” is from a 10th-century Latin-Old English dictionary in which the Latin diligenter (diligently, conscientiously) is translated as willendlice.
A later Latin-English dictionary, this one from the 16th century, defines the Latin libenter (eagerly, cheerfully) as “wyllyngely, gladly.”
The OED, which defines “willingly” as “with a ready will, consentingly, without reluctance,” says the adverb can convey “various shades of meaning from ‘with acquiescence, submissively’ to ‘with pleasure, cheerfully, gladly’ or ‘wishfully, eagerly.’ ”
Most uses in modern English conform to the Oxford definition, as exemplified by this citation from a 19th-century novel:
“Often have I observed one … of the sisters willingly go without her dinner … in order that her portion might be reserved for Mr. Stallabras” (The Chaplain of the Fleet, 1881, by Walter Besant and James Rice).
And that’s still the chief use of the word today, though at times in the past it has had less altruistic meanings, even crossing into the negative senses of “willfully.” Those uses are now obsolete, the OED says.
The adverb often appears in the phrase “would willingly,” Oxford adds, which means “should like to,” while “would not willingly” means “would rather not.”
As for “willfully,” the dictionary says the word was first recorded around the year 1000, spelled wilfullíce in late Old English. It originally had senses similar to “willingly”—voluntarily, of one’s own will—but those uses are obsolete, the dictionary says.
Today “willfully” has only two meanings, both negative. These are the OED definitions for those senses, which began to appear in the late 1300s and late 1500s, respectively:
(1) “Purposely, on purpose, by design, intentionally, deliberately. Chiefly, now always, in bad sense” and “occasionally implying ‘maliciously.’ ” (2) “In a self-willed manner, perversely, obstinately, stubbornly.” The two meanings are often hard to tell apart.
Here’s the earliest Oxford example for the purposely or deliberately sense, which we’ve expanded to add more context:
“Yf þat he wole take of it no cure, Whan þan it cometh, but wylfully it weyuen, Lo neyþer cas nor fortune hym deseyuen, But right his verray slouþe and wrecchednesse” (“If he will not take advantage of it when it comes, but willfully dismiss it, then neither chance nor fortune deceive him, but only his own sloth and wretchedness”). From Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, circa 1374.
And in the dictionary’s first example for the self-willed or obstinate sense, a hard-hearted mother is willfully intent on marrying her daughter to a rich creep:
“The mother … beyng determinately (least I shoulde say of a great Lady, wilfully) bent to marrie her to Demagoras.” From The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney, 1590.