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shameless pleading





Willies, the

Say hi to the wimwams

Dear Word Detective: I was interested in the letter where a reader described a particular feeling he had when two vinyl records were rubbed against each other as “chewing” him. When I was growing up, we used the term “willies” for the same feeling, as in “It gives me the willies to hear fingernails on the blackboard.” Or my favorite “willies maker,” pressed paper plates scraped with a fork or wooden Popsicle sticks. Have you got an origin on “the willies”? — Keith Fullerton.

The willies.  And then some.

The willies and then some.

That’s a good question. I, too, grew up with “the willies,” but my understanding of the term was slightly different from yours. We used “the willies” to mean “the creeps,” a feeling of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “nervous apprehension,” often accompanied by a sense of foreboding, especially of something unnatural in the works. That “creepy” feeling was integral to the “willies” for us. Much as visits to the dentist might provoke “nervous apprehension,” for instance, I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever had “the willies” before an appointment. Walking home through the woods at night in the late autumn as a child, however, is “williesville” and then some. But the “willies” seems broad enough to also include the nerve-jangling “please make it stop” feeling you describe.

“Willies” first appeared in print, as far as we know, in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the origins of the term are, strictly speaking, a complete mystery. I know, I know, boo, hiss, no fun at all.

Fortunately, however, I have a theory. When I answered a similar question about “the willies” back in 1995, I was living in New York City and had just seen a performance of “Giselle,” a mid-19th century ballet by Adolphe Adam. As I wrote at that time, “In the first act of the ballet, Giselle, a sturdy peasant girl, responds to a procession of unsuitable suitors by dancing herself to death. In Act Two, the now defunct but still remarkably sprightly Giselle meets up with a troupe of spectral Rockettes who haunt the nearby forest and are known as, guess what, the ‘willies.’ Together they dance around a good deal until the suitor Giselle really liked all along wanders by, whereupon the ‘willies’ literally dance him into the ground, and the two lovers live, or don’t live, happily ever after.”

As it turns out, I had the spelling wrong, and the ghostly hoofers in Giselle are properly known as the “wilis,” but it’s still pronounced “willies.” What’s truly interesting about the coincidence here is that Adolphe Adam did not invent these “wilis.” Also called “wila,” “vila” and several other variants, the “wilis” have been staples of Slavic folklore for centuries. “Wilis” are usually depicted as the spirits of young women who have died from love gone wrong in some respect and haunt the forests forever after, luring young men to their deaths. The legend of the “willies” has taken many forms over the years, and a form of “vila,” the “Veela,” even makes an appearance in the fourth book of the Harry Potter series.

While there is no direct evidence tying the “vilis” to “the willies,” it seems reasonable to conclude, especially considering the “creepy foreboding” connotation of “the willies,” that there might be more to the resemblance of the two words than just a spooky coincidence.

11 comments to Willies, the

  • Dave Patterson

    Simple answer: There was a time when Willie Mays and Willie McCovey were back to back in the SF Giants lineup. They gave opposing pichers “the willies” with their hitting clout. It is the modern origin of the term coined by the sports writers of the time, still used today by baseball fans and non-fans alike.

  • May

    The willies is a spontaneous physical reaction in the form of a upper body head, shoulder and inner ear jiggle like a cold wave or tickle of anxiety. While mainly creepy things, the source doesn’t have to be. Its also known as the feeling of someone walking over your grave. Also, an acutely sour substance in the mouth can cause the same reaction. Note when a baby tastes something awful how the child’s head wiggles.
    It isn’t a grate on your nerves fingers on the blackboard thing.

  • June

    The reference is to the Willey House tragedy of 1826. A rain storm flooded the Saco River in North Conway, NH, and
    started a mudslide. The Willey family all ran out of the house to escape the flood, but were caught in the resulting mudslide. The next morning rescuers found that the house had been saved by a large rock outcrop, but the entire Willey family had been carried away. The Willey house burned in 1926, but there is a commemorative plaque in the Crawford Notch State Park.

  • Dave

    I heard the same story as June, with some difference: Mr.Willey anticipated the landslides in the area and built a separate place to go, a shelter. In twist of sad irony, the family all hid in the shelter which was destroyed, while the house survived. Later though, some thought that the children had survived in the woods and were living wild. The feeling one got in the woods if you thought you saw the Willeys was thus described as “the Willeys.” This was told to me last week at the NH state historical museum in Concord.

  • Mel

    My first recollection of the Willies was as a child when a friend insisted on making a Childrens double swing go so high that I really thought we would take off. I was extremely fearful and felt a strong and distinct pain in my crotch area. I would say it was like a strong muscle contraction deep in the gut which caused real pain in the genital area – I have experienced this many times and the pain is always immediately relieved when the fear is removed. I have just experienced it whilst watching a TV veterinarian try to remove a fishing hook from a swans leg – I am very sensitive to such things and had to leave the room. I have suffered the Willies on numerous occasions over the past 65 years and always presumed that the name came from the approximate location of the pain I felt. After reading other explanations I am beginning to wonder if anyone else has the same experience ?.

  • Anne Smith

    Having just read the synopsis for Giselle, it was comforting to find your conclusion was the same as mine. Having ‘the willies put up you’ was definitely about feeling weird or experiencing an eerie event and the wilis seem to fit this very well. The phrase was always a juvenile laughing subject obviously!

  • Chris

    I always thought “willie” might share some etymology with “whinny.” The thought is based on my guess that horses whinny when they’re nervous. However, I don’t know much about horses, and a quick googling just now offers only limited support for the idea that horses typically whinny when they get the willies. Maybe ballets or mudslides are more plausible – thanks for the interesting alternatives!

  • Colin

    The Willies also feature in Puccini’s first opera”Le Villi”. The Villi are the spirits of virgins who have died of a broken heart. In the end they hound the hero to death with a frenzied dance. Le Villi is based on the same source material as Giselle a nd said to be related to Slavic legend. I reckon the Willies arrived in the US from Central Europe via the UK. The term was certainly in use in England in my grandparents’ generation, which takes it back before WW1.

  • JD

    Interesting story June and Dave. One thing seems suspicious to me, though. Mudslides happen very quickly and can’t be forecast, so how would a family with multiple children have time to round themselves up and get out of the house during a mudslide?

  • Iain

    The idea that all these phrases were invented by Americans and have an American origin is, frankly, laughable. The willies has its root in folklore, as other answers have stated, and have been used in the British isles since the late 1800’s, along with in their parent country/countries, where it referred to ghostly spirits who left an icy trail up your spine.

    Honestly. I read one, the other day, where “copper” (for police officer) came from the copper buttons and stars American policemen wore, and that “pigs” was coined by American hippies, during the Summer of Love.

    Such nonsense conveniently ignores that the first police Force was the Metropolitan, in London, where the term “capere” (it’s latin, for catch) came into common parlance for “it’s a fair cop” (catch), when criminals were apprehended. Coppers were catchers of criminals, and this found its way to the New World. Same goes for “pigs”. This was a common medieval term for a man, which devolved into meaning a brute, and was used as an insult by street folk – particularly the cockneys of London, for the forerunners of the Met. It also found its way to the New World and was REVIVED, there, (never having gone away in Britain), in the 70’s, during the protests and the brutal tactics used against those students nd protesters, by police.

    Now “heeby-jeebies”? That IS an Americanism, coined by a music hall songwriter of the early 20th Century.

    But “willies”? Nope.

  • David G. Imber

    I’d always been under the impression, evidently entirely mistaken, that the term “willies” was derived from the Jeep Willys, a vehicle first produced for the military in 1940. I can’t remember where I first heard this, but the idea was that though the Jeep was a remarkably sturdy vehicle, it lacked any reasonable suspension system. So that when one rode in it, even on a clear, level grade, one bounced about incessantly. Thus, a condition of jitteriness could be described as “having the Willys”. I still like my explanation even if it holds no water at all.

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