Printable Version
Pronunciation: wi-leez Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, plural

Meaning: The creeps, jitters, a fearful uneasiness.

Notes: Fear is an emotion for which English slang offers a variety of expressions: (the) heebie-jeebies, creeps, shakes, shivers. These words refer to substantial fear though not enough to petrify us. (The) fidgets, jitters, colly-wobbles, and willies, are words expressing a lesser degree of fear, fearfulness or just queasiness. Notice that all these terms are treated like some common diseases by the use of the before them: We have the willies, the jitters, the creeps, just as we have the measles, the whooping-cough, the pox, and even the blues.

In Play: Anything that frightens us gives us the willies: "I get the willies just thinking about asking the boss for a raise." Often we get the willies from normal things we all have to do: "Fred gets the willies every time he steps into the dentist's office."

Word History: No one knows for sure where this word originated, a state which has invited broad speculation. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins claims that it is a reduction of willie-boy "sissy", but that hardly makes semantic sense. William Morris, the Word Detective, opines that it comes from the name of a Slavic sprite called a vila (vili "sprites") sometimes translated as wili. However, spelling the name of the vili with a W is German, where the letter W is pronounced [v]. The best guess in my opinion was suggested by Jackie Strauss, who also suggested the word itself. 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 an uncomfortable skin sensation to me, too. So, I'm putting Jackie's speculation at the top of the list. All we need now is some evidence.

Dr. Goodword,

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