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From will I, nill I (also with ye or he instead of I), meaning “if I am willing, if I am not willing”, that is, “whether I am willing or not”. See will (to desire, wish), nill ((obsolete) to be unwilling).[1]



willy-nilly (comparative more willy-nilly, superlative most willy-nilly)

  1. Whether desired or not; without regard for the consequences or the wishes of those affected; whether willingly or unwillingly.
    Synonyms: (archaic) nilly-willy, nolens volens
    Some writers chasing money churn out novels willy-nilly.
    • 1868, [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe, translated by Arthur Duke Coleridge, Egmont. A Tragedy. [], London: Chapman & Hall, [], →OCLC, act II, page 40:
      Whenever I see a long handsome neck, willy nilly, the thought will come uppermost—What a capital neck for carving! Those cursed executions! One can't rid one's mind of them.
    • 1869 April 1, A. A. D., “Twelve Scenes in a Young Lady’s Life. No. IV. A Spring Ramble.”, in The Young Englishwoman. A Volume of Pure Literature, New Fashions, and Pretty Needlework Patterns, volume III, London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, [], →OCLC, stanza 1, page 220, column 1:
      I'll own I'm very glad he's come— / To hide my feelings would be silly— / You see I'm not so shy as some, / My thoughts will come out "willy-nilly."
    • 1889, Walter Besant, “A Slight Thing at the Best”, in For Faith and Freedom [], volume II, London: Chatto & Windus, [], →OCLC, page 243:
      [I]f you love him not, then you can love me, and, therefore, can come to please yourself, willy-nilly. What! am I to be thwarted in such a trifle? Willy-nilly, I say, I will marry thee. Come—we waste the time.
    • 1895 January, Thomas Hardy, “Hearts Insurgent”, in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, volume XC, number DXXXVI, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, [], →OCLC, chapter VIII, page 194, column 2:
      He says he shall come for me willy-nilly, and father and mother say I must have him! But I don't want to—because—because—I love you best!
    • 1948 August, Aldous Huxley, “The Script”, in Ape and Essence, 1st American edition, New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, →OCLC, page 154:
      And, while he sleeps, the indwelling Compassion preserves him, willy nilly, from the suicide which, in his waking hours, he has tried so frantically hard to commit.
    • 1954, Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception, London: Chatto & Windus, →OCLC, page 36:
      The outer world is what we wake up to every morning of our lives, is the place where, willy-nilly, we must try to make our living.
  2. (idiomatic) Seemingly at random; haphazardly.
    The novel Alice in Wonderland describes a place where things happen willy-nilly.

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willy-nilly (comparative more willy-nilly, superlative most willy-nilly)

  1. Whether willing or unwilling.
    Synonym: (archaic) nilly-willy
    • 1877, Alfred Tennyson, Harold: A Drama, London: Henry S. King & Co., →OCLC, Act V, scene v, page 129:
      [S]omeone saw thy willy-nilly nun / Vying a tress against our golden fern.
    • 1882, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Promise of May”, in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After etc., London, New York, N.Y.: Macmillan and Co., published 1886, →OCLC, Act II, page 119:
      O my God, if man be only / A willy-nilly current of sensations— / Reaction needs must follow revel—yet— / Why feel remorse, he, knowing that he must have / Moved in the iron grooves of Destiny?

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  1. ^ willy-nilly, adv. and adj.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2015; willy-nilly, adv.”, in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

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