Definitions

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

  • adv. Whether desired or not: After her boss fell sick, she willy-nilly found herself directing the project.
  • adv. Without order or plan; haphazardly.
  • adj. Being or occurring whether desired or not: willy-nilly cooperation.
  • adj. Disordered; haphazard: willy-nilly zoning laws.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

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

from The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia

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

  • adv. without having a choice
  • adv. in a random manner

Etymologies

Alteration of will ye (or he), nill ye (or he), be you (or he) willing, be you (or he) unwilling.
(American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition)
Originally ‘will he, nill he’ or ‘will ye, nill ye’, meaning ‘be he willing, be he unwilling’; see will, nill. (Wiktionary)

Examples

Comments

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  • 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

  • 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

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

    March 2, 2007