Answer Man: Where did the 'willies' come from?

News-DemocratAugust 6, 2013 

In a recent answer about the Willys Whippet automobile, you made one of your typical wordplay jokes about giving someone the willies. Stop leaving us in suspense. What's the origin of this expression which people use to convey a jittery sense of creepiness? -- C.F., of O'Fallon

That's the kind of question that give Answer Men the willies, because, as so often happens, nobody has ever been able to trace this popular phrase back to its ultimate origin. However, to ease your mind (and assuage my own guilt for having left you hanging), allow me to offer a few theories:

One of the most popular comes from dictionary.com, which dates "the willies" to 1896 as a "spell of nervousness." They speculate it may have arisen from a sloppy pronunciation of "the woolies," which refers to that uncomfortably itchy sensation you feel when you wear woolen pants or long johns.

Two other guesses also involve derivations of popular expressions of the day. The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, for example, traces willies to the old slang term "willie-boy," meaning, for whatever reason, "sissy." It might follow that a willie-boy would be prone to the willies.

Similarly, some say the willies may be a shortened form of the "willy-wambles," supposedly a once popular dialectical expression for the stomach rumblings you may experience when you're walking by a dark graveyard at night.

But I save the most intriguing -- and esoteric -- possibility for last. This involves spirits known variously as "wilas," "wilis," "vilas," etc., which have been a part of Slavic folklore for centuries.

These "wilis" are the spirits of young women who have met a sad demise after being jilted by their lovers. For revenge, they spend their afterlife haunting forests and luring young men to their death -- certainly enough to give Eastern Europeans the willies after hearing these tales.

The legend, however, now can be found in many other cultures. In the 1841 French ballet "Giselle," for example, the peasant girl Giselle dies of a broken heart when she discovers her true love, Prince Albrecht, is engaged to another. Her spirit then is recruited by the Wilis to kill Albrecht, but her abiding love is strong enough to break free of their control, allowing her to rest in peace while Albrecht spends the rest of his life in mourning.

More modern readers may recall that the Veela accompany the Bulgarian Quidditch team to the Quidditch World Cup in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." So while the name of these haunting nymphs is often pronounced with a "v," a mispronunciation over the centuries may have given us all the willies.

My wife and I shopped the closing sale Friday at Macy's in downtown St. Louis. When we got home, I noticed I was charged two sales taxes -- a "RGLR Tax" of 10.491 percent and a second "LOCL Tax" of 2 percent. Why? -- J.W., of Swansea

You ran into the same kind of taxing problem you see every time you look at a supermarket receipt in Illinois.

In this state, food is taxed at a much lower rate than other items. So when I look at my receipt from Shop 'n Save on North Belt in Belleville, I see that all of my meats, veggies and Cheetos have been taxed at 1.75 percent while my cat litter and Blatz beer gets hit with that just-renewed 8.1 percent rate. Two different totals depending on the items being taxed.

You experienced the same thing at Macy's because you went shopping during that magical period in Missouri known as the school sales tax holiday. From Friday through Sunday, items of clothing and footwear priced at $100 or less (and computers and school supplies) were exempt from the Missouri state sales taxes and many -- but not all -- city sales taxes.

So, just like our supermarkets, they charged you one tax rate or the other -- not both -- depending on the item scanned. For clothing and footwear items under $100, it was 2 percent; for items over $100 or non-clothing merchandise, they nailed you for the normal state-local rate of 10.491 percent.

Today's trivia

What rock band originally said it took its name from one of the member's grandmothers and the hallucinogenic treat she made?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Woody Allen's first movie was supposed to be a semi-autobiographical tale about the swinging lifestyle of Warren Beatty. In fact, they wound up taking the line that Beatty used to greet his girlfriends as the title -- "What's New, Pussycat?" But when Allen began rewriting the script and cutting Beatty's role while building up his own, Beatty protested. Making matters worse, producers reportedly refused to hire Beatty's girlfriend at the time, Leslie Caron, for the role of Renee Lefebvre. Beatty then left the project and was replaced by Peter O'Toole. According to imdb.com, Groucho Marx was the original pick for Peter Sellers' role as Dr. Fassbinder.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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