Thursday, March 7, 2019

Language of Confusion: Wills

Will is a pretty common word. I know I use it all the time. So what are its origins?

It comes from the Old English willan, to wish or desire (the noun of course coming from the equivalent noun, willa). But there’s also a form of “to will” that comes from willian, that does mean to will. They’re all related and frankly I didn’t even know that there was a version of will that meant wish. In any case, all versions are descended from the Proto Germanic willjan, which is from the Proto Indo European wel-, to wish or to will. I guess that explains that. Although not the word won’t. I mean, why does the i change to an o? It was actually first recorded in the mid fifteenth century as wynnot (still makes more sense) and then in the late sixteenth century as wonnot. I guess that’s where the o is from, but it doesn’t explain why!

Of course there are a lot of other words that are (weirdly) related. Benevolence for example. Really. It showed up in the fifteenth century from the Old French benevolence and classical Latin benvolentia, goodwill. The bene- means good and the rest comes from volentem, wanting, and velle, to want, and that’s the part that’s also descended from wel-. Malevolence is pretty much the same, just with mal- (bad) in front instead of bene.

Voluntary actually comes from the same place. It showed up in the late fourteenth century from the classical Latin voluntarius, to volunteer, which is also from velle.

There are several other words that are related that I’ve actually already etymologized, like well and would, and although I’m not going to get back into them again, feel free to check out their own posts.

Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English


  1. Will might be a stronger form of wish - I wish you to do it, I will you to do it.

  2. It makes sense that benevolence and malevolence would have common ties.

  3. Interesting how words that sound nothing alike can be related.

  4. good will wanting...
    That sounds almost like a movie. :P

  5. LOL! I saw Willis. As in "Whatcha talkin' about, Willis." Wrong word.

  6. It also almost looks like William, the name.


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