Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Why ‘Willies’ Give Etymologists the Willies

No one knows for sure where the word willies originated, a state which has invited broad if not wild speculation.

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins claims that it is a reduction of an old word, willie-boy “sissy”. This explanation hardly makes semantic sense: having the willies is far from being or even feeling like a sissy.

William Morris, the Word Detective, opines that willies might come from the name of a Slavic sprite called a vila (plural vili “sprites”) sometimes translated as wili. However, the spelling of vili as wili is German, where W is pronounced [v], not English where it is pronounced [w]. 

The best guess in my opinion was recently suggested by Jackie Strauss, who also suggested the word itself as a Good Word in our daily series. This word reminds Jackie of the woolies, which is to say scratchy wool long winter underwear. The willies are the same as the creeps, which suggests a skin sensation to me, too. So, I’m putting Jackie’s speculation at the top of my list of potential explanations of the origin of willies.

Now all we need is some evidence.

3 Responses to “Why ‘Willies’ Give Etymologists the Willies”

  1. Myrt Mussell Says:

    We always use air purifier at home because my kids have some sort of pollen allergy.

  2. Dewey Suennen Says:

    1. I do agree with all of the ideas you’ve presented in your post. They are really convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for newbies. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

  3. Tom Weaver Says:

    In an english class, years ago, I was told that back in the 1800 there was a poem published in a London newspaper about two brothers who were fighting over something petty. One brother accidentally struck the other (Willie) who died and fell in the flaming fireplace and burned to ashes. The poem ended with: “Late at night when the air grows chilly, I go to the hearth and stir old Willie.” Evidently, the poem was so creepy to the readers, the term “The Willies” became a synonym for something creepy.

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