One of my stepsons was recently discussing his appreciation for the explanations of grammatical terms offered by The Word Detective. The website is the online version of a newspaper column by Evan Morris, for which he answers readers’ questions about grammar and the written word. Although I often explain the correct usage of of it's and its to students, it was the explanation for the history of why the current usage of it's and its that brought me to the page of column entries that includes Dr. Morris' advice concerning these words. However, once there, I couldn't resist reading the rest of the entries, the last of which was titled "A Visit from the Willies." In response to a question regarding the origin of the term "the willies," Dr. Morris responds:
By virtue of an eerie coincidence, I happened to be puzzling over the origin of "willies" just as your letter arrived (start the spooky music, please). The previous evening I had attended a performance by the American Ballet Theater of "Giselle." In the first act of the ballet, Giselle, a sturdy peasant girl, responds to a procession of unsuitable suitors by dancing herself to death. (I know, I know -- I didn't entirely understand this part myself).I just love the various connections Dr. Morris makes in this response, in large part because the story of Giselle and the willies has so many fairy tale elements.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. I love culture, don't you?
I have checked several reference works, and most agree that "the willies," meaning "the jitters" or "nervous apprehension," is of "unknown origin." One exception, my own parents' 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."
That theory is far from impossible, but I think I may have found, thanks to my evening with "Giselle," a more likely source. The "willies" in the ballet take their name from the Serbo-Croatian word "vila" (in English, "wili" or "willi") meaning a wood-nymph or fairy, usually 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. Now, where's that spooky music I ordered?