The adjective voluntary has a rather straightforward etymology. It comes from the Latin voluntarius, meaning willing, of one’s own choice, via the Old French voluntaire. The Latin noun voluntas means will or desire.
The first English incarnation of the word is the noun volunte, meaning will or desire, a direct import of the Old French volonte, which in turn is from the Latin noun. It first appears in a poem called Of Arthour and of Merlin in the Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates 19.2.1), copied c. 1330. Lines 679–81 of the poem read:
A forseyd deuel liȝt adoun
& of þat wiif made a conioun
To don alle his volunte
(The aforementioned devil sought after and of that woman made a possessed person who would do his will entirely)
(The Auchinleck manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed free online.)
This noun had faded from use by the early sixteenth century. The noun will, from Old English, had won out over the Latin word, but the Latin root stuck around in other uses.
One of these uses is the adjective voluntary, also borrowed from the Old French voluntaire, which is first recorded in Lanfranc’s Science of Cirurgie (surgery), in a manuscript copied sometime before 1400:
Fleisch [...] & ligamentis [...] ben instrument voluntarie meuynge.
(Flesh [...] & ligaments [...] are instruments [of] voluntary motion.)
The noun volunteer, however, doesn’t appear until the early modern era. This noun originally had a military connotation, meaning someone who willingly entered into military service. It’s first recorded in Walter Raleigh’s The Life and Death of Mahomet, of uncertain date but obviously written before his death in 1618:
6000 horse and voluntiers infinite accomodated with all provisions.
Within a few decades the word was being used in non-military contexts. In 1648, Thomas Gage wrote of religious missions being sent to the New World in his The English-American His Travail by Sea and Land:
Yearly are sent thither Missions..either of Voluntiers, Fryers Mendicants, Priests or Monkes, or else of forced Jesuites.
The verb to volunteer appears even later, first recorded in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary in the sense of to enlist for military service. Since this appearance is in a dictionary, the verb was obviously in use for sometime prior. It isn’t until the mid nineteenth century that we find non-military uses of the verb.
Finally, Tennessee’s nickname of the Volunteer State comes from the 1847 Mexican-American War. A call for 2,800 volunteers for military service yielded some 30,000 recruits. The nickname is recorded as early as 1853.
“voluntary, adj., adv., and n.,” “volunteer, n. and adj.,” “volunteer, v.,” “volunty, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
“volunte (n),” “voluntari(e (adj.),” Middle English Dictionary, 2001
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton