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.
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.