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vol·​a·​tile ˈvä-lə-tᵊl How to pronounce volatile (audio)
 especially British  -ˌtī(-ə)l
: characterized by or subject to rapid or unexpected change
a volatile market
: unable to hold the attention fixed because of an inherent lightness or fickleness of disposition
: tending to erupt into violence : explosive
a volatile temper
: easily aroused
volatile suspicions
: readily vaporizable at a relatively low temperature
: difficult to capture or hold permanently : evanescent, transitory
: flying or having the power to fly
volatileness noun


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: a substance that is readily vaporizable at relatively low temperature : a volatile substance

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The History of Volatile Is for the Birds

Volatile was originally for the birds—quite literally. Back in the 14th century, the word was a noun and volatiles were birds (especially wild fowl) or other winged creatures, such as butterflies. That's not as flighty as it sounds. Volatile traces back to the Latin verb volare, which means “to fly.” By the end of the 16th century, people were using volatile as an adjective to describe meal ground so fine and light that it could easily “fly” or be blown about. Soon after, the adjective was extended to creatures that were capable of flying (as in “volatile insects”), later to vapors and gases, and by the early 17th century, to individuals or things as prone to sudden change as some gaseous substances. In recent years, volatile has alighted in economic, political, and technical contexts far flown from its avian origins.

Examples of volatile in a Sentence

Adjective I am beginning to hear investors say that the best way to beat this volatile market is by trading—anxiously moving in and out of securities as the market ebbs and flows. In my view there is no surer path to the poorhouse. John W. Rogers, Jr., Forbes, 25 May 2009
Usually, only a few of the volatile chemicals in a fragrance are obviously noticeable to human noses. Ivan Amato, Science News, 24 Sept. 2005
VOCs (or volatile organic compounds) are thought to be among the potential culprits behind illnesses often lumped under the heading of Sick Building Syndrome. Scott Schilling, This Old House, March 2005
… it was Elvis who represented rock and roll at its unblushing, volatile best; he was its first master and the embodiment of every reason that adolescents of the postwar years turned to it in favor of the cheerfully torpid pop music … to which their parents were listening. David Hajdu, New York Review of Books, 9 Oct. 2003
When left unused, make-up has a tendency to dry out because any water or other volatile substances it contains evaporate. Barry Fox, New Scientist, 9 Aug. 2003
The stock market can be very volatile. She is a volatile woman. The protests are increasing, creating a volatile situation in the capital. See More
Recent Examples on the Web
Importantly, core inflation — which strips out volatile food and energy costs and is seen as a better indicator of underlying price pressures — is declining in all three regions. Anna Cooban, CNN, 21 Sep. 2023 In August, inflation rose by an annual rate of 3.7% amid higher gasoline prices, while core numbers, which excludes volatile fuel and food costs, rose 4.3% from a year ago. Aimee Picchi, CBS News, 20 Sep. 2023 Core inflation, stripped of volatile food and energy costs, is also projected at 2%. WSJ, 20 Sep. 2023 Still, most recent data is pointing in the direction the Fed wants to see: Inflation in June and July, excluding volatile food and energy prices, posted its two lowest monthly readings in nearly two years. Christopher Rugaber The Associated Press, Arkansas Online, 20 Sep. 2023 Some pharma giants are moving forward with plans to build and occupy new space despite the volatile market conditions, including Eli Lilly in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood and AstraZeneca in Kendall Square. Robert Weisman, BostonGlobe.com, 19 Sep. 2023 One good example of short-run differences is the volatile times of the pandemic era. Jonathan Lansner, San Diego Union-Tribune, 16 Sep. 2023 Yet spending has been volatile this year after surging nearly 3% in January. Anne D'innocenzio, Fortune, 14 Sep. 2023 After the removal of food and fuel costs, which are volatile, a core price index slowed on an annual basis but increased faster than economists expected on a monthly basis — rising 0.3 percent, compared with 0.2 percent in both June and July. Jeanna Smialek, New York Times, 13 Sep. 2023
It will be equipped with three spectrometers to measure volatiles – substances such as water that can easily change from solid or liquid to gas – and a 1-meter drill to perform sub-surface excavations. Nadia Leigh-Hewitson, CNN, 25 May 2023 Understanding the Moon’s volatiles or resources, including minerals, metals, and of course water, is one of the most important parts of the project. Carlos R. Muñoz, BostonGlobe.com, 16 May 2023 Plants interact with organisms that produce sounds all the time — like buzzing bees — and also communicate with other life-forms, including other plants, by emitting chemicals, called volatiles. Darren Incorvaia, New York Times, 30 Mar. 2023 For Pluto, the volatile of choice is nitrogen ice. Nola Taylor Redd, Discover Magazine, 20 Oct. 2016 These seem to be their own class of explosive carbonatities where the extreme volatile (CO2) content of the magma drives their violent eruption. Erik Klemetti, Discover Magazine, 11 Mar. 2014 Though the team could not say which volatiles were present, there was reason to hope that water might be one of them. Remy Tumin, New York Times, 24 Mar. 2020 The organic molecules and volatiles, comparable to samples of sedimentary rock rich in organics on Earth, included thiophenes, methylthiophenes methanethiol and dimethylsulfide. Ashley Strickland, CNN, 6 Mar. 2020 Beyond the snowline, these volatiles condensed into giant gas-balls. The Economist, 18 Dec. 2019 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'volatile.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Adjective and Noun

French, from Latin volatilis, from volare to fly

First Known Use


1605, in the meaning defined at sense 3


1686, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of volatile was in 1605


Dictionary Entries Near volatile

Cite this Entry

“Volatile.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/volatile. Accessed 29 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


: easily becoming a vapor at a fairly low temperature
a volatile solvent
: likely to change suddenly or quickly
a volatile temper
the stock market is volatile

Medical Definition


1 of 2 noun
ˈväl-ət-ᵊl, especially British -ə-ˌtīl
: a volatile substance


2 of 2 adjective
: readily vaporizable at a relatively low temperature
volatility noun
plural volatilities

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