willy-nilly

I knew Willy Nally. He like to dally. First he saw Sally, then Elly, then Milly… Although he was a nihilist, he could annul denial when he list. But when he met Nelly, well, will he, nill he, he was stunned silly as jelly; she was up his alley. Whoa, Nally! No more free Willy! His desultory polyamory was annulled, and, nolens volens, he was collared, his will newly woolly. He could no more gaily bully every Sheila, willy-nilly; Nelly knew him fully and would not fall in folly. No shilly-shally dilly-dally hem and haw; she had him, willy-nilly.

Does that seem silly? Do you wonder why, in that weave of words, I used willy-nilly twice? Well, you tell me: what do you use willy-nilly to mean? If you are like many, you see it as meaning “here and there, desultorily, haphazardly.” But that is a sense founded on its sound – the back-and-forth of it, like shilly-shally, which is flush with wishy-washy (note the vowel alternation: high-low, as we see in tick-tock, ping-pong, pitter-patter, frick and frack, and so on). Nill was once a word: the negative of will, which was itself not merely an auxiliary but a full expression of intention. From will he, nill he or will I, nill I we got willy-nilly: as Oxford puts it, “nolens volens,” videlicet, “whether wanting it or not.” Fans of Shakespeare will recall Petruchio’s avowal in The Taming of the Shrew: “Will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

So while we use its high vowels and liquids to tell of situational liquidity, it is originally a liquid or irrelevant will that it spells. (Can you see the teeth of the w give way to the bent back of the n?) Essentially, it tells you to forestall your sally and come and parley.

3 responses to “willy-nilly

  1. Superb. These sort of terms are formed very naturally, aren’t they? Especially when talking to children.
    I have to say that this looks like a fantastic website. I’m going to enjoy spending time here. I only came across it during a Google search for something I’ve posted on my blog, which now looks a bit amateurish, by comparison, when it comes to etymology.

  2. Pingback: guggul | Sesquiotica

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