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

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

Alteration of will ye (or he), nill ye (or he), be you (or he) willing, be you (or he) unwilling.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

Originally ‘will he, nill he’ or ‘will ye, nill ye’, meaning ‘be he willing, be he unwilling’; see will, nill.

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