Meanings of “Willy-nilly”

The phrase “willy-nilly” has two slightly different meanings. On the one hand, it means whether you like it not, you have to do something. On the other hand, it shows oscillation in resolution to do something.

Origin of “Willy-nilly”

The phrase “willy-nilly” seems to have occurred in archaic spellings in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints. These are sermons collected and edited by three Walters. It was published in 1881. The phrase has been given as “wille we, nelle we.

Later, William Shakespeare used this phrase with some twist in his play, The Taming of the Shrew, where it is used as; “And, Will you, nill you, I will marry you.”

Example #1

Brown’s Descent, or the Willy-Nilly Slide by Robert Frost

Sometimes as an authority
On motor-cars, I’m asked if I
Should say our stock was petered out,
And this is my sincere reply:

Yankees are what they always were.
Don’t think Brown ever gave up hope
Of getting home again because
He couldn’t climb that slippery slope;

Or even thought of standing there
Until the January thaw
Should take the polish off the crust.
He bowed with grace to natural law,

And then went round it on his feet,
After the manner of our stock;
Not much concerned for those to whom,
At that particular time o’clock,

It must have looked as if the course
He steered was really straight away
From that which he was headed for—
Not much concerned for them, I say:

No more so than became a man—
And politician at odd seasons.
I’ve kept Brown standing in the cold
While I invested him with reasons;

But now he snapped his eyes three times;
Then shook his lantern, saying, “Ile’s
‘Bout out!” and took the long way home
By road, a matter of several miles.

This famous ballad features an unforgettable character, Brown. Brown lives on a high farm so that everyone could see his lantern. Unfortunately, one day a gale of strong wind hurled him down. Decided not to give up, Brown pursued his journey taking a long way home. While doing so, people drew several judgments, but he did not pay attention and moved on. The phrase used in the title shows the metaphoric representation that no matter you want or not, you have to accept the natural law and fate.

Example #2

Willy Nilly by Michael Burch

(for the Demiurge aka Yahweh/Jehovah)

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You made the Stallion,
you made the filly,
and now they sleep
in the dark earth, stilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?
You forced them to run
all their days uphilly.
They ran till they dropped—
life’s a pickle, dilly.
Isn’t it silly, Willy Nilly?

The poem addresses somebody, Willy Nilly as if he is the creator of everything. He asks him if he has created both, the Stallion as well as a filly, and has made them run uphill till they get tired. Life seems so hard for them. Therefore, they decided to pray and worship God. The phrase has been used as a repetition as well as a metaphor and personification to signify so many things.

Example #3

Willy Nilly by Mungo Tatton-Brown

“Willing or unwilling.
Willing, unwilling.
Willing, nwilling.
Willy, nwilly.
Willy nilly, language changes,
There’s no choice, we change the ranges,
Words appear and morph and melt,
Chaotic riding helter-skelt,

There’s nothing more than what we hear,
And what we think,
And what we smear,
Words are sounds,
And also feelings,
Flutter round,
Wallpaper peelings.”

In these lines, the speaker uses the phrase in different ways, showing how spellings and language change, giving different connotations and nuances to the meanings. He reflects how we play with the words to create something new. To him, words and sounds enable us to understand what is happening in the world we live in.

Example #4

The Wild Imagination of Willy Nilly by Edición para Kindle

Edición para Kindle, in this book, speaks about an adventurous boy, Willy Nilly, who loves to have different experiences in life. Once, he had a chance to board a mysterious green boat that takes him to an unchartered land. Although he gets far from his parents, yet he does not let his fear govern his life. Instead, he makes the most of his expedition and mesmerizes the readers with various exciting and imaginative experiences. The phrase has been used as an extended metaphor.

Examples in Sentences

Example #1: “The willy-nilly students had to accept the teacher’s order to complete the assigned projects on time.”

Example #2: “Although James has nothing to do with the incident that happened yesterday as he was on leave, yet he accepted willy-nilly as the motivator behind that unfortunate situation.”

Example #3: “The constructor wanted to work on a slow pace but he, willy-nilly, accepted a request to complete his task before the arrival of summer.”

Example #4: “It seems that Mr. Potter was dragged willy-nilly toward the tragedy.”

Example #5: “It is obvious that China and India are on bad terms nowadays, but their willy-nilly, cannot take the country to a war.”