International Volunteer Day (sometimes abbreviated to IVD) takes place annually on December 5th. It is an ‘International Day’ established by the United Nations to recognize and promote the contribution made by volunteers and voluntary organizations to the wellbeing of people across the globe. And, as it has done with so many aspects of our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the value of volunteerism into even sharper focus. To mark this important date, volunteer has been selected as Collins Dictionary’s Word of the Week.
The noun sense of the word ‘volunteer’ is the first to appear in English, with citations dating from the 17th century. The verb use is not widely recorded until the 19th century, but by then it had already merited an entry in Samuel Johnson’s A dictionary of the English language (1755), so some currency in earlier decades can be inferred. ‘Volunteer’ is predated, though, by the adjective voluntary, which can be found in its first citation in the 14th century (in the form voluntarie). Like so many words in Middle English, it was adopted from French and ultimately has a Latin root, in this case deriving from voluntārius ‘willing’, from voluntās ‘will’.
It is not, you might think, a word that readily lends itself to portmanteaus, or blends, in today’s English. Nevertheless, there are one or two that have come to the fore: recent years have seen a rise in voluntourism, a form of tourism in which travellers do voluntary work to help communities or the environment in the places they are visiting. (Voluntourism is not without its critics, who argue that distorted power relationships and ecological damage can be part and parcel of such travel.) A more irreverent note is struck with the idea of being ‘voluntold’, that is, of being invited or nominated to do something and feeling that you are not in a position to refuse.
‘Voluntell’ is an apt word for a relatable concept, though perhaps not one that chimes with the noble aims of International Volunteer Day and the admirable principle of willingly giving one’s time and effort for the good of others – something that so many people across the world are readily prepared to do, and something that is well worth celebrating.
Written by Mary O’Neill, managing editor.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.
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