Search us!

Search The Word Detective and our family of websites:

This is the easiest way to find a column on a particular word or phrase.

To search for a specific phrase, put it between quotation marks.






Comments are closed.

Unfortunately, new comments on posts on this site have been suspended because of my illness.

Previously approved comments will remain visible.

I deeply appreciate the erudition and energy of our commenters. Your contributions to this site have been invaluable. But I can no longer devote the time necessary to separate good comments from the hundreds of spam comments submitted.

Because Wordpress weirdly doesn't allow me to simply turn off comments en masse, comment boxes will still appear at the foot of posts.



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.

4 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.

Leave a Reply to May Cancel reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please support
The Word Detective

(and see each issue
much sooner)

by Subscribing.


Follow us on Twitter!




New! You have questions? How Come? has the answers!

400+ pages of science questions answered and explained for kids -- and adults!