26 August 2009

That gives you the willies?

To give you the willies... where did that expression come from, anyway? Walker asked.
No one does.
Every source I've found says that the origin of the phrase is unknown, but there seem to be a few postulate theories out there. I've collected 4 of them. The last one is my favorite.
- Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, traces "the willies" to the slang expression "willie-boy," meaning "sissy" -- presumably the sort who would be prone to the "willies."
- The Serbo-Croatian word "vila" (in English pronounced /wi-li/) meaning a wood-nymph or fairy usually refers to the spirit of a betrothed girl who died after being jilted by her lover. It seems entirely possible to me that "willi," the spirit or ghost, became the "willies," the feeling that something creepy is going on.
- 2001 Douglas Harper Etymology Dictionary also says its origin is unknown, but that it's perhaps from the woollies, a dialectal term for "nervous uneasiness," probably in reference to the itchiness of wool garments. In the dictionary, woolly also means: a. Lacking sharp detail or clarity. b. Mentally or intellectually disorganized or unclear. c. Having the characteristics of the rough, generally lawless atmosphere of the American frontier.
- This is pretty wild. On Monday night, Aug. 28, 1826, an avalanche rampaged down isolated Crawford Notch, N.H., in the heart of the White Mountains, burying seven members of the Willey family and two hired men. Had the victims stayed in their house, which stood directly in the path of the avalanche, they would have been spared; incredibly, a boulder divided the landslide directly behind the house so that the debris streamed past on either side. (Reference: OUT OF NOWHERE Disaster and Tourism in the White Mountains By Eric Purchase Johns Hopkins University Press) Check this out. Some people suspect that is the origin of the phrase...
Take your pick.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering if the term was potentially related to the incident at Crawford Notch and was happy to find it here as a possibility. For many years after the tragedy, the house remained preserved exactly as the family had left it before their flight, table set for dinner, bible open to a certain page, etc. One can only imagine how tourists felt visiting this scene while simultaneously knowing the terrible fate of the family. It does make the goose pimples rise on the skin!

Anonymous said...

I would bet that the term is connected with Heinrich Heine's essay Elementargeister [Elemental Spirits], in which "Wilis" are described as supernatural women who cause men to dance to their death.

Anonymous said...

I go with 'sprite'.See references in the ballet 'Giselle'. The Wilis there are sinister and terrifying!

Anonymous said...

It was my understanding that it originated from William Burke and William Hare, (aka Willies) who murdered several people in Scotland for the purpose of medical research.

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