Query (3rd and final try): Origin of "give/have the willies"

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at MST.EDU
Tue Aug 26 19:04:14 UTC 2014

     My thanks for the replies on "give s.o. the willies."  I've done some checking too and have found a possible candidate for the origin "willies", viz. Willie in the Americanized versions of an old English ballad that goes by several names. Wikipedia writes:
'"Pretty Polly", "The Gosport Tragedy" or "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter"... is a traditional English-language folk song found in the British Isles, Canada, and the Appalachian region of North America, among other places.
     'The song is a murder ballad, telling of a young woman lured into the forest where she is killed and buried in a shallow grave. Many variants of the story have the villain as a ship's carpenter who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant. When he goes back to sea, he is haunted by her ghost, confesses to the murder, goes mad and dies.'
    The name of the villain is Willie.  He's bad enough in the English ballad but becomes particularly loathsome in the American versions. Steven Harvey's_Bound for Shady Grove_, 2000, (pp. 96-97) says: 
    '“Come go along with me,” Willie insists as he leads Polly into the woods, “before we get married some pleasure to see.”  She is reluctant and afraid, bearing that he will lead her “poor body astray.”                                                                                                                                                            
     ‘There is, I think,... something of corrupted innocence in what Polly says.  She knows him and knows she cannot stop him. He answers with the most chilling stanza in mountain music, a casual, brutal sentiment, the perfect foil to her naïveté.  “Oh Polly, pretty Polly, you’re guessin’ about right,” he says,...“I dug on your grave the best part of the night.”’ 

     This guy is a real creep, and it would be wholly appropriate if  his name was in fact taken to express a feeling of creepiness and fear.  By this interpretation of course, the DT's would represent a secondary development. 

Gerald Cohen 

ADSGarson O'Toole [adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM], Tuesday, August 26, 2014 11:15 AM, wrote: 

Gerald Cohen wrote:
> So here goes. I've been asked the origin of "willies" as in "give/have
> the willies." OED lists it as "Origin unknown."
> It's of U.S origin, first attested in 1896. "To give s.o. the willies' is
> t o make them nervous.
> Would anyone have any idea about the origin of this term/expression?

In the three citations below I conjecture that "the willies" referred
to delirium tremens (DTs).

A short newspaper item in 1893 described a lawsuit. One newspaper
editor named Morris was suing another editor for the large sum of
$100,000. Morris believed that he was being defamed because the other
newspaperman claimed that 'Mr. Morris had the "willies"'. The full
news item given below did not clarify the nature of the "willies". I
hypothesize that Morris was being accused of alcoholism and the
willies referred to the DTs.

[ref] 1893 February 6, Cincinnati Post, Hasn't Got "Willies", Quote
Page 1, Column 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Hasn't Got 'Willies,"

And He's Hot After His "Esteemed

CYNTHIANA, KY., Feb. 8 - [Special.] -
F.W. Morris, editor of the Times of this
city, will bring suit against Editor Rob-
erts of the Lexington Leader for defama-
tion of character. Editor Roberts in
commenting on an article that appeared
in the Times states that Mr. Morris had
the "willies." The amount of damage
that will be asked for is $100,000.
[End excerpt]

The following two excerpts are from a news story in 1893 in which two
"inebriates" traveled to Staten Island to go fishing. The friends were
unaware that a nearby accommodation was a "freak boarding house".
During a long walk one inebriate encountered an individual with a
frightening appearance and warned his friend.

The companion suspected that his friend had "the willys", i.e., was
experiencing delirium tremens. After encountering more freaks the pair
ran away in fear. Ultimately, the two did learn about the existence of
the "freak boarding house" and resumed drinking after a short period
of abstinence.

[ref] 1893 October 21, Wade's Fibre & Fabric, Volume 18, Thought They
"Had 'Em" (Acknowledgement to New York Herald), Quote Page 419, Column
2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View)[/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
Thought They "Had 'em."


"Vichy and milk," said the tall man with
the Roman nose.

"What!" ejaculated the man with the full
beard. "Holy snakes! What's going to

"Nothing. That's the reason I'm taking
mild drinks. I'm going to be on the safe
side. I thought last night it had happened.
I think so yet."

"What - the willys?" asked he of the
beard, pouring out a man's dose of old Kain-
[End excerpt]

[Begin excerpt]
"'Run Bob! fo' God's sake run!'
"'What's the matter? I asked.
"'Don't ask me, but run,' and he tried to
get away. I made up my mind he had 'em
--you know--the willys. I made him walk
along with me. We hadn't gone 10 steps
when we saw something coming. It was
dressed like a man, but was as thin as a
skeleton. It went past us quietly.
[End excerpt]

In the following excerpt from a story published in 1895 a man named
Hamilton was attending an uninhibited revelry at midnight with
"champagne, blonde heads and flashing lights". A "befuddled idiot at
the piano" started to play Mendelssohn's "Consolation" on the piano
and Hamilton felt remorse.

[ref] 1895 October, The University of Virginia Magazine, Hamilton '95
by Hiram Thomas, Start Page 12, Quote Page 15, Published by two
Literary Societies of the University of Virginia,  Charlottesville,
Virginia. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
He stood dazed.

What's the matter, Hamilton; got the willies?" asked someone, while a
thick voice called out unsteadily, "Drop that ---- ecclesiastical tune
and give us something spicy."

"My God!" gasped Hamilton, "Where am I, and what am I doing?"

He rushed through the crowd, out of the house and into the street. The
cold autumn wind cooled his heated brain and seemed to clear his mind.
[End excerpt]


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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