Getting caught in a spider web…walking through an abandoned warehouse…getting caught in a spider web while walking through an abandoned warehouse…those might make you feel uneasy, scared, or otherwise upset. Some would call that a case of “the willies”. But what are “the willies”? Who, or what, were they named after? And how did they become synonymous with feeling weirded out?
Some etymologists believe “the willies” arose from an 1840s Paris ballet about a woman named Giselle, who falls in love with Prince Albrecht, a ladies’ man with a long list of scorned lovers in his past. When Giselle dies of a broken heart, she meets the spirits of other victimized women, led by the Queen of the Wilis. Together, they seek revenge on their former earthly lovers. The Wilis were an over-the-top spectacle that scared the audience with their appearance, giving them a literal case of “the Wilis”.
Then there’s the 19th-century Willey family tragedy from New Hampshire that could be where the phrase came from. Samuel Willey Jr. moved his wife & 5 kids to Crawford Notch, NH, in 1825. A year later, there was a drought that caused a major landslide, which wreaked havoc on the area. The Willey house was spared, thanks to being near a rock ledge that diverted the debris. Yet the bodies of the family were later found outside. There was no way they could’ve known, but if they’d only stayed in their house they probably would’ve survived. The way the townspeople felt upon finding The Willeys could be considered one of the first cases of “the willies”.
Then there were the American frontiersmen, who wore wool underwear known as “woolies”, which frequently led to…irritation…a tingling sensation that could’ve been adopted as a way to indicate an overall feeling of discomfort.
Or it could’ve come from the turn-of-the-century children who would calle each other “willie-boy” instead of “sissy”. When fellow kids were viewed as skittish & feeble, they were said to have had a case of the “willies”.
The only “willie” we’re concerned with here at WFRE, however, is Willie Nelson. And there’s nothing scary or upsetting about him…he’s a national treasure.
Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via Twitter (@AndyWebbRadio), or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.