Skip to content

Word Wisdom: Volatile

The latest inspirational column from Rev. Dr. John Kreutzwieser
Word Wisdom

Sometimes when Patti is working in her office upstairs and she hears me moving some things in the basement she has volatile suspicions that I might begin throwing things out that she wants to keep. Her worries are easily aroused when I try to clean up the numerous cardboard boxes underneath the stairwell. In my opinion there is no need for so many boxes, as they are spilling from under the stairwell into the room. She is concerned that a particular box may come in handy at some point in the future, and so she states with some conviction, “Do not throw any out without checking with me first.” She has volatile trepidations when I start moving boxes.

Volatile can mean something that is easily stirred, especially emotions. The sight of a snake can cause volatile reactions in many people. The emotion of fear is stimulated quite quickly by snakes. But volatile can also imply a tendency to erupt into aggressive behaviour. So, on seeing a snake many people might react by kicking or hitting the creature.

For investors, the stock market is volatile, which is characterized by rapid or unexpected changes. Certain gases are volatile, as they are readily vaporizable at a low temperature. Something can be volatile if it is difficult to capture or hold permanently so it can be said that winning the Super Bowl year after year is a volatile endeavour. If one says that she has a volatile personality this can mean she is lively but can also exhibit surprising transformations.

In the 14th century the English word volatiles meant birds, especially wild fowl. That is because volatile comes from the Latin verb volare, meaning to fly. By the end of the 1500s volatile was used as an adjective to describe pulses or cereal grasses ground so fine that the flour could be blown about or fly away. Volatile then expanded to include insects that were capable of flying. Next, gases and vapours were labelled as volatile, as they could simply fly away and disappear into the air. In the early 17th century, the term volatile began to describe people that were prone to sudden changes in how they would fly away or fly off the handle in certain circumstances. In recent years, volatile has been used in economics, political, and technical settings.

The word volatile is pronounced differently in English and American English. In English it is said vo-luh-tile, with the stress on the first syllable and the last syllable making use of a long ‘i’ in tile. In American English it is pronounced vaa-luh-tl. In Canada I have used volatile and heard it enunciated both ways. Take your pick for your pronunciation. 

Synonyms for volatile include capricious, fickle, mercurial, temperamental, and variable.

Capricious suggests motivation by sudden whim and stresses unpredictability. The employees were at the mercy of a capricious manager at the factory.
Fickle implies unreliability because of perverse changeability and incapacity for steadfastness. Sports teams on a losing streak can discover how fickle fans can be.

Mercurial hints at a rapid changeability in mood. The children were always in fear of their father’s mercurial temperament, especially when he had been drinking.
Temperamental is marked by excessive sensitivity and impulsive mood changes. Two year olds often have a temperamental disposition.

Variable implies likely to change frequently, suddenly, or unexpectedly. In Saskatchewan the wind has variable speeds during the day which affects one’s golf game.

Whenever we book airline tickets for an international trip, we purchase them months ahead of time because last minute airfares are highly volatile. And as for the boxes, I do admit that sometimes some of those boxes are useful for giving gifts to family or friends.

John would like to know if anyone has a sincere interest in a relevant word that he could possibly research for an upcoming column. If so, please send your requests to Words will be selected according to relevance and research criteria. We cannot confirm that all words will be used.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 


push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks