Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Simon Gray

   I'm reading Simon Gray's “The Year of the Jouncer” yet again. Late last night I came across the following sentences;

   “A playwright friend says he doesn't 'do' funerals. I point out to him that there's one he'll have to do, willy-nilly. He says that that one doesn't count, as he'll have no choice”.

   I admire Gray's subtly controlled, discursive style (not that it's particularly well demonstrated by the above extract). I especially like his punctuation, which he uses to great effect in making his prose sound off the cuff. And, of course, he finds the right words. I have all three of Gray's “Smoking Diaries”, of which “The Year of the Jouncer” is the second, next to my bed. Alongside them is a permanent livre de chevet, a Chambers dictionary that my hand can find, as it can my spectacles, without visual assistance. It is only on this latest reading that I paused over Gray's use of “willy-nilly”. I'm not sure why I hadn't before – I must have thought he meant he did his pointing-out in a haphazard fashion. But that doesn't really make sense. Consequently, as so many times before, the independent hand shot out, located Chambers, brought Chambers back to me and all was well with the world. All was well, that is, until I found what I was looking for;
   “willy-nilly; adv. willing or unwilling: compulsorily. - adjs. having no choice: vacillating (erron.)”

   I think the erroneous “vacillating” bit must be due to confusion with “shilly-shally”, I'll check that later. Incidentally, “willy-nilly” was followed by “willy-willy - (Austr.) n. a cyclone” - I wonder if that's from one of those countless Aboriginal languages? Or is it just from “whirly-whirly”? They don't bother telling you in Chambers. That's another thing to check, but for now “willy-willy” can wait its turn along with “shilly-shally”, I've got enough on my plate with “willy-nilly”.

   The point is, regardless of what “shilly-shally” and “willy-willy” mean, “willy-nilly” didn't mean “haphazard” and I'd spent decades thinking it did. Curiously, instead of feeling the slight jolt of happiness I usually do over the discovery of a new meaning of a word, I felt the kind of uneasiness sensitive types feel when they're miles from home and think they remember leaving the gas on. What I experienced - deep in the isolation of my baldaquined bed, teetering at the top of my ivory tower, encircled by weedy moats, drawbridge hoist high and nailed shut, the entire kit and caboodle invisible in the shrouding mists of a remote Burgundian hillside - was a twinge of social embarrassment. Had I been employing, all these years, “willy-nilly” incorrectly? Was it further proof of an ignorance never fully buried by the mounds of books that surround me?

   So, first thing this morning I check on the Internet and find the meaning of “willy-nilly” has changed over time and, nowadays, normally means “unplanned, random”. Phew. I like Gray's use of it though, le mot juste as usual. The meaning I'm familiar with seems to have developed relatively recently (My Chambers was printed in 1972). The Online Etymological Dictionary says that the origins of “willy-nilly” can be traced to the 13th century in a phrase that was then in common use, “nill he, will he” - the “nill” meaning “to be unwilling” from OE ne (“no”) + “will”. By Shakespeare's day the order had reversed; “And, will you, nill you, I will marry you” (Petruchio telling Katherina she's going to marry him whether she wants to or not, in “The Taming of the Shrew”).

   P.S. My Oxford English Dictionary claims that “willy-willy” (a reduplicative rhyming compound, as is “willy-nilly”) is from a “Native name”, but I think “willy-willy” is derived from “whirly”. I also think that “willy-willy” sounds suspiciously like a parody of an Aboriginal language's way of expressing a plural (c.f. Wiradjuri's Wagga wagga “many crows”) and that the OED explanation is the result of some bored Ozzie farmer leading a credulous Pommie linguist up a gum tree.