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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”.

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Page created 18 Apr 1998