Definitions

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • adverb Whether desired or not.
  • adverb Without order or plan; haphazardly.
  • adjective Being or occurring whether desired or not.
  • adjective Disordered; haphazard.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • Will he or will he not; will ye or will ye not; willing or unwilling. See nill, will
  • Vacillating; shilly-shallying.
  • Also nilly-willy.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • adverb Whether desired or not.
  • adverb idiomatic Without regard for consequences or the will of those affected.
  • adverb Seemingly at random, haphazardly

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • adverb without having a choice
  • adverb in a random manner

Etymologies

from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[Alteration of will ye (or he or I), nill ye (or he or I), be you (or he or I) willing, be you (or he or I) unwilling.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Originally ‘will he, nill he’ or ‘will ye, nill ye’, meaning ‘be he willing, be he unwilling’; see will, nill.

Examples

  • Then they proceed to throw the name around willy-nilly, with Rudolph mixing in "prosecco."

    SAG Top Moments: The Scorsese-est Drinking Game

  • So long as he walked four miles an hour, he pumped that blood, willy-nilly, to the surface; but now it ebbed away and sank down into the recesses of his body.

    To Build a Fire

  • The missions and objectives were never clearly defined, and the self-parodying "search for WMD" in Iraq (lampooned by the president himself at a subsequent press dinner) was a willy-nilly adventure in comic relief -- to wit, Donald Rumsfeld's classic remark that "we know where they are: they're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat."

    Randall Amster: WikiLessons: War Is a Joke, But It Isn't Funny

  • It gives us a plausible look at time travel and its potential consequences without having characters popping around through time changing events willy-nilly with no consideration for logic or continuity.

    20 « March « 2009 « Axiom's Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy

  • The missions and objectives were never clearly defined, and the self-parodying "search for WMD" in Iraq (lampooned by the president himself at a subsequent press dinner) was a willy-nilly adventure in comic relief -- to wit, Donald Rumsfeld's classic remark that "we know where they are: they're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south, and north somewhat."

    Randall Amster: WikiLessons: War Is a Joke, But It Isn't Funny

  • He lay on the floor in a loose heap, rolling willy-nilly with every roll of the Elsinore.

    CHAPTER XXXVIII

  • "When you go down this road and you start to just willy-nilly - as I believe President Carter has - throwing race out there, you diminish real instances of racism that needs to be addressed."

    Steele admonishes Democrats' charges of racism

  • He abruptly ceased, for at that moment, to enforce his remark, he had placed his hand on Planchette, and at that moment his hand had been seized, as by a paroxysm, and sent dashing, willy-nilly, across the paper, writing as the hand of an angry person would write.

    Jack London's Story - Moon Face: Planchette pg 3 of 3

  • Constitutional head of all military in the US (and a civilian for a reason) ... should just let the military do whatever it wants willy-nilly.

    McChrystal: Finding bin Laden vital to beating al Qaeda

  • The central organizing principle of every single street in America is that people will not start pushing each other, willy-nilly, into traffic.

    Matthew Yglesias » Finding Terrorists is Hard

Comments

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  • Alternate definition: adj., impotent. --Mensa word list winner 2006

    March 2, 2007

  • Reminds me of that old Peter Pan play "I'll send for Tiger Lily! And I'll Send for Peter Pan, we'll be there Willy Nilly!"

    September 5, 2008

  • will he, nill he is a commonly cited antecedent to this phrase, but there's also will I, nill I:

    Will I, nill I, the ineffable thing has tied me to him; tows me with a cable I have no knife to cut.

    Moby Dick I-LXVII by Melville, Herman

    June 4, 2009