United: 'Our Team Looked for Volunteers'

'Someone who does something without being forced to do it'

Lookups for volunteer spiked 1900% on April 10, 2017, after video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago was widely circulated. The flight was overbooked, and, in a statement, the airline said it had asked for volunteers to leave the plane before they selected at least one to be removed forcibly by police:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.

Volunteer means “someone who does something without being forced to do it,” especially a person who joins the military or who does work for no pay. It comes from Latin and has been used in English since about 1600, but shares roots with the older word voluntary, both going back to the Latin verb velle meaning “to will” or “to wish.” Some of the interest in the definition of volunteer may come from the wording of the statement from United, since a person who did not volunteer to leave was then described as refusing “to leave the aircraft voluntarily”—and subsequently being forced to do it.

News accounts of the incident made mention of the fact that the flight was overbooked, but, as dictionary people, we also notice that the airline’s statement used overbook adjectivally to modify a noun, a definition that we don’t yet include. This use probably shows one way that language evolves: specialized words that are frequently used within an industry sometimes undergo functional shift and may or may not spread to common usage. We volunteer to watch this one.

_Trend Watch tracks and reports on the words that people are looking up. You can see all the Trend Watch articles here.

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