Willy-nilly

I was looking at some online resources aimed at helping people improve their English pronunciation when I came across the word ‘nill’, which was used as an example of how to pronounce the sound /ɪ/ (as in bit).  I didn’t know if this was a misspelling of the word ‘nil’ (meaning zero or nothing), or a word I’d never heard of, so of course I looked it up.  Using trusty old dictionary.com, I was informed that the word ‘nill‘ was an archaic verb, meaning to be unwilling, will not, or to refuse (something).

This led to the phrase ‘will he, nill he’ (or ‘will ye, nill ye’), which means ‘whether he is willing or not’.  This in turn morphed into the phrase ‘willy-nilly‘, which is still used today.  ‘Willy-nilly’ is generally used to describe something that is disorganised, unplanned, or generally ‘all over the place’, but it still has a secondary (but rare) meaning that is related to the original form, which is basically ‘whether you like it or not’.

So if you ever hear someone say ‘you’ll have to do it willy-nilly’, don’t assume that it means they want you to do a shoddy job.  Unfortunately, they probably mean that you’ll have to do the task whether you want to or not.

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