n. (pl.)

WA sg. wile, pl. wileswilles, wilez


(Modern English wile)


Several different sources have been suggested for, and may have contributed to the development of, this word: (1) (a) Early commentators explain ME wyl- as native, deriving it from a PGmc root *wīl-, attested by OE *wīl: e.g. Torp-Falk's víl and Pokorny's wīle 'cunning', which they related to OIcel vél in the sense 'wile, device, trick (etc.)'.  Similarly, (b) MED derives from (b) MED's OE wīl 'chain' (cp. (ge)wilian (-wylian) 'to connect, bind' < wiliga 'basket'), supposing a metaphorical sense extension from 'something that ties, fetter' (etc) > 'cunning'?   There is, however, scant evidence for any such form (a) in OE texts (see further Dance) and other authorities have not followed MED in suggesting a connection with the word family cited at (b). (2) A more plausible native source (cited by TGD, GDS) is OE wīgle ‘divination’ (with the derived v. OE wīglian cp. MLG, MDu wichelen (< *wīgelen), and with the agent n. OE wīglere cp. MDu wi(j)chelāre, MLG wicheler). The ulterior etymology is difficult, but on semantic grounds it is sensible to connect it with OE wīoh (wēoh, wīg) ‘idol, image’ (cp. OIcel ‘mansion, house; sanctuary, temple’, OS wīh ‘temple’) and hence with the PGmc adj. *weiha- ‘holy’. The requisite formal development from wīgl- > wīl- is attested during the OE period from the variant spelling of the verbal n. <wilung>, and the spelling <wiel-> is then found as a variant of ME wīʒel, the senses of which are, moreover, very close to those of ME wyl- (esp. MED’s sense (b) ‘a ruse, trick; ingenuity, trickery; also, a feint or similar ruse used in wrestling’). It is therefore quite possible to regard early ME wī3el- and wīl- as etymologically identical variants of the same OE stem which have respectively retained and lost the medial consonant (probably as a velar fricative), or at least to regard the two words as having been identified by ME writers and thus having contributed to the history of wyl-. (3) An alternative plausible source (TGD, GDS, MED) is an AN by-form *wile of OFr guile ‘guile, deceit; fraud, sham’. MED cites a 15c. ONF wilbuffe ‘deceit’, and the existence of a N Fr w- form is rendered plausible by the likely derivation of Fr guile from Gmc (perh. from the stem *wigel- discussed under (2) above, though this is disputed). The senses of OFr guile, and those of its borrowing ME gile (PDE guile), are undeniably close to wyl-, and ME users may well have equated the two as variants showing the familiar N/central Fr /w/ ~ /ɡ/ alternation, at the very least reinforcing an already existing wyl- of some other origin. (4) OED, largely on the basis of the regional distribution of the ME, prefers derivation from ON, viz. a VAN *wihl-, which it takes to be the ancestor of OIcel vél ‘artifice, craft, device; engine, machine (inc. to catch fish); wile, device, trick (pl. frauds, tricks)’. However, it is far from certain that OIcel vél ‘wile, device, trick’ (the nearest senses to ME wyl-, and cp. further the v. OIcel véla ‘to defraud, trick’) shares an etymology with vél ‘artifice, craft, device’ (etc.) (as Mag., see further Pokorny I.1129) and other associations have been made (incl. taking vél ‘wile, device, trick’ as cognate with OE wīl (as at (1)). Loan from a VAN form *wihl- could have resulted in late OE *wīl-, assuming its naturalization into OE with loss of /x/ between voiced sounds. Loss of /x/ in this position in ON, which triggered lowering of the vowel to /e:/, is nonetheless usually regarded as a rather early change, meaning that the presence of a high vowel such as would give OE, ME /i:/ as late as the period of Anglo-Norse contact must be regarded as questionable.     

PGmc Ancestor

(1) *wīl-; (2) wīgel-; (4) ?*wihl

Proposed ON Etymon (OIcel representative)

(4) vél ‘wile, device, trick’ 
(ONP (4) vél (1) (sb.))

Other Scandinavian Reflexes

(4) Far væl, Icel vél, Norw vēl, MSw väl

OE Cognate

(1)  wīl ?'cunning'?; (2) wīgle ‘divination’

Phonological and morphological markers

Summary category



The earliest attestations recorded by MED are from EM texts (ChronE s.a. 1128 and Orrm), and in the 13c. only from SK.T and a1300(a1250) Bestiary (Arun 292); but by the later 14c. it is widespread.

Occurrences in the Gersum Corpus

Gaw 1700, 1711, 2415 etc.; WA 416, 1363, 1764 etc.