Still reading Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (see here and here), I’ve come across a word that is vanishingly rare—so rare, indeed, that it’s not in the OED (though it will presumably be added when the third edition reaches V). Hollinghurst’s sentence is “I have forgotten the volume, but will always remember the sentence: ‘Its want of volitary powers led inevitably to its extirpation,’ the subject being, I believe, the Giant Moa.” Needless to say, I looked up the odd word (derived from Latin volito ‘to fly,’ though there is no Latin volitarius), and on not finding it I formulated a tentative hypothesis that he had made it up. But of course I didn’t stop there, and a Google Books search quickly turned up what must be his source, from Joel Samuel Polack‘s 1838 New Zealand; Being a Narrative of Travels and Adventures during a Residence in that Country between the Years 1831 and 1837 Vol. I, p. 346: “Many of these petrifactions had been the ossified parts of birds, that are at present (as far as is known) extinct in these islands, whose probable tameness, or want of volitary powers; caused them to be early extirpated by a people, driven by both hunger and superstition (either reason is quite sufficient in its way) to rid themselves of their presence.”
But what really delighted me was finding this further hit for the word in a review of Polack’s book:
We have already commended the vivacity and general truth of Mr. Polack’s volumes. His language is occasionally extremely ambitious, and he coins words with a boldness which will scare not a few of his readers. He talks of hederaceous, oerementous, and tophaceous soils; of volitary birds, subsultive fishes, — nay, he rivals the inimitable Mrs. Malaprop herself; and describes a native chief “who squinted with an obloquy of vision, little short of caricature.” Such faults, however, are easily pardoned in one who has a brisk flow of spirits.
The word is actually attested earlier (e.g., in The Works of Ezekiel Hopkins, Arranged and Revised, with a Life of the Author, by J. Pratt , p. 468: “if a vain thought, that is such a fleeting and volitary thing, breathes a kind of contagion and taint upon the heart…”), but it’s something that anyone with a knowledge of Latin and a brisk flow of spirits might come up with, regardless of prior art.