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Why Do We Say Something Gives Us 'The Willies'?

Jake Rossen
That wallpaper is giving us the willies.
That wallpaper is giving us the willies. / Williams+Hirakawa/iStock via Getty Images
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Walking past a graveyard? On a lousy date? A lousy date who took you for a stroll in a graveyard? You might develop a case of the “willies,” a euphemism for being unsettled, frightened, or otherwise disturbed.

So who or what is a willy, and why did a number of them become synonymous with getting creeped out?

As is typical with certain etymology, there’s more than one possible answer. One of the most interesting is that the term originated with a ballet performed in 1840s Paris. Giselle is about a woman who falls in love with the 19th-century version of a player, a man named Prince Albrecht who’s left a trail of scorned lovers in his wake. The protagonist dies of a broken heart, at which point she meets other women who have been wronged.

All of the spirits are led by the Queen of the Wilis, and they set out to exact their vengeance on their earthbound former partners. The show made a spectacle of these spirits, known as Wilis, and it may have been that the audience got scared by their appearance—given a literal case of the Wilis.

Giselle was inspired by the Willis, a figure in Slavic folklore embodied by a married woman who perishes before her wedding day. At midnight, the women exit the spirit world to dance for their own pleasure; any man who sees them will die. Famous Italian composer Giacomo Puccini later adapted the story for his La Villi in 1884.

In New Hampshire, there's been some discussion that the tragedy of the Willey family might be the origin of the phrase. In 1825, Samuel Willey Jr. moved his wife and five children to Crawford Notch. In 1826, a drought led to a major landslide. Though the Willey house was spared—it was near a rock ledge that diverted the debris—the family was found outside. They couldn't have known it, but they probably would have survived had they not fled. Their fate is certainly worthy of willies.

Another explanation has it that frontiersmen who wore wool underwear known as “woolies” were often irritated by it. That tingling sensation may have been adopted to denote a general feeling of unease.

Or, kids who once called each other “willie-boy” instead of “sissy” might be the culprits. If these children were thought to be skittish and weak, then it stands they might have a case of the “willies.”

In fairness to anyone named Willy or Willie, the name has certainly acquitted itself well in the past. Boxer Willie Pep is considered one of the greatest of all time, with a staggering 242 bouts and 230 wins. Willie Nelson and Willie Mays would also likely have something to say about it.

[h/t HowStuffWorks]

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