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On ‘willy-nilly’

Q: Your “willy-nilly” entry (from 2006) dates it at 1608. Mightn’t it come from Hamlet, which was written a few years earlier? From Act V, Scene 1: “If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he nill he, he goes.” Just my 2 cents.

A: Thanks for drawing our attention to that 2006 post about “willy-nilly,” one of the oldest posts on our blog, and one in need of an update. So here goes.

As it turns out, early versions of “willy-nilly” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, seven centuries before the usage appeared in Shakespeare. In Old English, forms of the verbs wyllan (to want something) and nyllan (to not want it) were combined in various expressions meaning “whether (one) will or not; willingly or unwillingly; voluntarily or compulsorily,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Although “willy-nilly” usually means haphazardly or carelessly today, that early sense (willingly or unwillingly, whether you like it or not) is included in all 10 of the standard dictionaries we regularly consult.

For example, Dictionary.com (based on the old Random House Unabridged) defines “willy-nilly” as (1) “in a disorganized or unplanned manner; sloppily” and (2) “whether one wishes to or not; willingly or unwillingly.”

The earliest Old English ancestor of “willy-nilly” in the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, is “sam we willan sam we nyllan” (whether we wish to or wish not to). Here’s the citation from King Ælfred’s translation (circa 888) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin work by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“we sceolon beon nede geþafan, sam we willan sam we nyllan, þæt he sie se hehsta hrof eallra goda” (“We must grant, whether we wish to or not, that He is the crowning pinnacle of all things good”).

A shorter version, “wille we, nelle we” (willingly or unwillingly, one way or another) showed up a century later:

“forðan þe we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode, wille we, nelle we” (“Therefore we are sinners and shall be humble, willingly or unwillingly”). From Lives of the Saints, believed written in the 990s by the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham.

A reverse version of the expression, “nil we, wil we,” showed up a few hundred years later in Middle English:

“ded has vs wit-sett vr strete; nil we, wil we, we sal mete” (“Death surrounds us in all places; one way or another, we shall meet”). From Cursor Mundi, an anonymous poem composed before 1325 and possibly as early as 1300.

Shakespeare, who apparently liked the expression, used it at least twice—first in The Taming of the Shrew, believed written in the early 1590s,  and then in Hamlet, said to be written in the late 1590s or early 1600s.

In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio tells Katherine that he’ll marry her, whether she wants to or not: “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

In the passage from Hamlet that you mentioned, a gravedigger comments on whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial after a suspicious drowning. The expression “will he nill he” isn’t in the First Quarto (1603), the earliest published version of the play, but it’s in the Second Quarto (1604-5) and the First Folio (1623.)

Here’s an expanded version from the Second Quarto of the gravedigger’s remarks: “if the man goe to this water & drowne himselfe, it is will he, nill he, he goes, marke you that, but if the water come to him, & drowne him, he drownes not himselfe.”

The earliest example in the OED for “willy-nilly” spelled the usual modern way (but minus the hyphen) is from Salmagundi, a 19th-century satirical periodical created and written by Washington Irving and others. Here’s an expanded version of the April 25, 1807, citation:

“Woe be to the patient that came under the benevolent hand of my aunt Charity; he was sure, willy nilly, to be drenched with a deluge of decoctions: and full many a time has my cousin Christopher borne a twinge of pain in silence, through fear of being condemned to suffer the martyrdom of her materia medica.”

We suspect that the “willy-nilly” spelling may have caught on because of its similarity to two other reduplicative usages, “wishy-washy” (1693) and “shilly-shally” (1700). As we’ve noted several times on the blog, reduplication is the complete or partial repetition of linguistic elements.

Interestingly, the OED’s entry for “willy-nilly,” which hasn’t been fully updated since 1926, cites an early 17th-century satirical play as the first written example of the expression: “Thou shalt trust mee spite of thy teeth, furnish me with some money, wille nille” (from A Trick to Catch the Old-One, 1608, by Thomas Middleton).

The Old English and Middle English passages that we’ve cited as early versions of “willy-nilly” are from the dictionary’s entries for the verb “will” and the archaic verb “nill.” We assume that the OED will eventually note the earlier usages in an updated “willy-nilly” entry.

As of now, the dictionary doesn’t have any examples of “willy-nilly” in the usual modern sense of haphazardly. As far as we can tell, the expression took on that meaning in the mid-19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the English poet Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

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