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Why do we say 'Willy - Nilly'?

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'She threw the money willy - nilly on the table'.

This expression has two slightly differing yet related meanings – it can mean ‘in a disorganised way’ or ‘whether with or against your will’.

Although we more commonly use it nowadays to mean ‘haphazardly’, the origin centres around the first meaning. The early meaning of the word ‘nill’ was the opposite of ‘will’, as in ‘wanting to do something’. In other words, ‘nill’ meant ‘wanting to avoid doing something’. So, combining the two words – I am willing, I am unwilling – expresses the idea that it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other!

'After her boss got sick, she found herself directing the project willy nilly.'


Can you give us another example of doing something willy-nilly?