Historically Speaking

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Posts Tagged ‘nilly willy’

Willy Nilly

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 24, 2011

When Doctor Who discussed the concept of time in the episode “Blink” in Season 3, he said that time, rather than being a linear string of cause and event, was actually more akin to a ball made out of “timey wimey wibbly wobbly” stuff.  Timey wimey, wibbly wobbly, willy nilly … there’s a lot of rhyming to be found in the English language but they all have their origins somewhere in time.

When something happens willy-nilly, it happens in a very disorganized and happenstance way with little to no forethought going into it.

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported on such a situation on July 13, 1958 in an article entitled, “Doctor Raps Reliance on New Drugs.”  The article stated:

Dr. Harold R. Reames, chief of the department of infectious disease of the Upjohn Co., Kalamazoo, said doctors use [wonder] drugs too indiscriminately and have badly mishandled many aspects of the control of germ-caused disease.

“Surely progress has been made as illustrated by work on diarrheal disease,” Reames said.  “But antibiotics and chemotherapeutic agents have been used excessively and in a willy-nilly fashion.”

And on November 24, 1855 the New York Times ran in their weekly column “Gossip: What Has Been Most Talked About During The Week.”

When he piped about “Evangeline” everybody took to hexameter just as they do now to trochaics when he pipes about “Hiawatha.”  He has bewitched the public with his Indian legends, and, willy-nilly, everybody imitates him. It is just as marked a tribute to his genius as turn-over collars and gin-drinking thirty years ago were to Byron’s fascinations.

Back in 1601, in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the following is found in Act V, Scene I:

FIRST CLOWN:
Give me leave. Here lies the water—good. Here stands the man—good. If the man go to this water and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes. Mark you that.  But if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

SECOND CLOWN:
But is this law?

FIRST CLOWN:
Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

One of the earliest known versions of the expression willy nilly from an Old English text entitled, “Aelfric’s Lives of Saints” dated 1,000 AD where the following is found:

Forean the we synd synfulle and sceolan beon eadmode,
Wille we, nelle we, and he wolde sylf-willes
us syllan a bysne, swa swa he sylf cwae

But in the end, it must be noted that there is a Latin phrase that couples together “willing” and “unwilling” in the expression nolens volens which certainly expresses the sentiments of willy nilly in spirit and in context.

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