Jonathan Richie BW.tif

History is one of the most fascinating things that can be studied. I enjoy the history of words and especially the history of everyday phrases we may not know the origins of. That is the stuff I enjoy the most.

Now, imagine my joy while I was sitting in the courtroom last week (I was working, not there for personal reasons) and I heard the judge say something that immediately sparked my interest. I don’t know if it was because I enjoy old phrases or because judges are usually buttoned up with reading legalese, statues and case law.

But when I heard the judge say “(the law) is not to be done willy nilly” I almost leapt out of my seat while vigorously writing notes.

Wikipedia says the phrase is an idiom for haphazardly or spontaneously. This is not how someone should go into a court of law. Maybe one could go willy nilly into a movie or to lunch but certainly not for work as an attorney.

So that got the wheels turning and I started thinking about history and like all things in life I started wondering about the phrase, after hearing my parents, grandparents and other folks use the phrase my whole life, and where did it originate.

Turns out my initial theory was wildly inaccurate. I had been under the impression that some guy, probably named William Nilliam, was a bit aloof or detached from life so people started mocking him. Then Nilliam died and people would start shortening his name to the point where they did not even remember the namesake of this cruel phrase. However, like most things in life I was wrong.

But the phrase does originate in the early 17th century – back when words mattered, and people communicated with each other with word and not through their fingers and these mini-computers we keep in our pockets.

But I digress.

The first citation for the phrase is in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1608. There’s a bunch of other information on the Internet, although some of it is fairly unreliable. Apparently, the phrase began as a wishy-washy type ‘maybe I will or maybe I won’t’ phrase. It was first seen as “will I, nill I” or I am willing, I am unwilling. It is not credited to Bill Shakespeare or any other significant historical figure.

However, The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology reasserts the origins of the phrase and adds that “nill” comes from the Old English word, nyllan – a combination of “ne” meaning no and “willan” meaning will. Over the years it transformed into the phrase we all know and love – willy nilly.

And finally, there was a single released by Rufus Thomas in 1965 called “Willy Nilly.” Thomas was a notorious Stax Records artist with hits like “Walking the Dog” in 1963 and “Do the Funky Chicken” released six years later.

So, live your life in a willy nilly fashion, if you can afford it. If not, just keep being succinct and do everything willingly.