Bookshelf header image for page World Wide Words logo


Pronounced /vɒlɪˈteɪʃən/Help with pronunciation

Volitation — meaning flying or flight — is now a rare word, though it does turn up occasionally in elevated prose, as in James Gould Cozzons’ By Love Possessed (1957): “Flight from physical self ... was futile. Volitations of that kind were, for the expedition’s rank and file at least, neither afforded nor countenanced”.

It is first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary here:

Birds or flying animals ... are almost erect, advancing the head and breast in their progression, and only prone in the act of their volitation.

Vulgar Errors, by Sir Thomas Browne, 1646.

It was later employed by a young author who went on to greater things:

Here the progress of his companion was impeded for some time by a great crowd, which had assembled to catch a glimpse of a man who was to fly off a steeple, but who had not yet arrived. A chimney-sweeper observed to a scientific friend that probably the density of the atmosphere might prevent the intended volitation.

The Voyage of Captain Popanilla, by Benjamin Disraeli, 1827.

To find its origin we have to go back to the Latin volare, “to fly”. This word is also the source of our volatile, originally a winged creature, such as a butterfly or bird, and only later taking on the figurative senses of something that evaporates quickly, or changeable, fickle. Also from the same source is volley, which is, etymologically speaking, a flight of something, such as missiles, and volant, mainly used these days as a specialist zoological term for “able to fly”.

Share this page
Facebook Twitter StumbleUpon Google+ Email

Search World Wide Words

Support World Wide Words!

Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.

Buy from Amazon and get me a small commission at no cost to you. Select your preferred site and click Go!


Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Apr. 1998

Advice on copyright

The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL:
Last modified: 18 April 1998.