Printable Version
Pronunciation: wil-ee-nil-ee Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adverb, Adjective

Meaning: 1. Nolens volens, like it or not, without a choice, obligatorily. 2. At random, haphazard or haphazardly, without plan.

Notes: This word has strayed away from its original meaning and is used more often in the second sense above in the US. The Word History will show that the first definition above is the basic meaning, though the new one seems to be here, willy-nilly, to stay. This word may be used as an adverb, as 'to do something willy-nilly', or as an adjective, as 'a willy-nilly order to do something'.

In Play: The basic meaning of today's Good Word is No. 1 above: "When one of the actors fell and literally broke a leg, Barry Moore found himself willy-nilly taking over the role of the cab driver in his high school's production of the play 'Harvey'." The second definition seems to be here to stay, so we are OK when we say things like this: "If you guys want to win this game, you have to stick to our plays and not run willy-nilly all over the field hoping to get a shot at the goal."

Word History: Today's Good Word is a rhyming compound based on two discrete words. It originated in a phrase will ye, nill ye "whether you will (it) or not". Nill is the negative counterpart of will that went out of service back in the 18th century. It was a contraction of ne (currently nay) + will. In the middle ages English speakers could say something like "I will go" or "I nill go", the latter meaning "I won't go". Will came from an original stem that spread with all the Indo-European languages. It originally meant something like "to please", for it turned up in Russian as volya "will", in Serbian as voleti "to love", in Greek as elpis "hope", and in French as vouloir "want, desire". (We shouldn't thank Brian Johnson of Tokyo willy-nilly for suggesting today's Good Word, but because he deserves our gratitude.)

Dr. Goodword,

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