Endangered Words excerpt: velleity

Velleity is one of the 100 featured words in Endangered Words: Simon Hertnon’s guided tour of one hundred exceptional rare words, but not just any one: it’s the one that planted the seed for the book.

Simon Hertnon
Auckland, December 2015

Endangered Words (Kindle edition) book cover


{vә-LEE-ә-tee. Noun.}


From the OED:

  1. The fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.
  2. With a and in the plural. A mere wish, desire, or inclination without accompanying action or effort.

The RH2’s definition adds another nuance: ‘volition in its weakest form.’ Velleity is the very benchmark of caring minimally.

The adjective is velleitous.


Early 17th century


From the Latin velleitas, from velle, ‘to will, to wish, to be willing’, and -itas, -ity.


Very rare


Velleity is the word whose (and I quote myself, which is a little weird) ‘utter relevance, archaic age (around 400 years old) and extreme rarity immediately struck me as something special’.

I cannot imagine there are too many other English words that so accurately describe such a pervasive condition. I mean, sure, we have many words and phrases at our disposal to express that we don’t care at all (don’t give a damn, indifference), that we do care (love, passion, calling), and even that we secretly care but want to inflict a little pain by claiming that we don’t (couldn’t care less). But what about when we give just a little damn — not enough to do anything about our limited interest or concern — but a totally unhelpful inkling of a damn all the same?

And everywhere you look you will find velleitous inklings of concern. For example, the velleitous concern for air quality and global warming displayed by the drivers of gas-guzzling, smoke-belching SUVs (and that stands for Suburban Utility Vehicle, in case you have ever had a velleitous desire to look it up, but never got round to it).

I am convinced that velleity permeates our lukewarm blood and that talking about the condition and using the word will only help us to better recognise our own behaviour.

Let’s resurrect this word.


The ease of her words, the control of them, was meant to convey to Compton that her wish to know of her real parents was hardly more than a velleity, a thought that would come to one while watering a plant or peeling an orange.

Thomas Savage, I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (Little, Brown, 1977)


[The ‘alive’ section for each featured word is one hundredth of a short story that uses, in alphabetical order, all one hundred rare words. You’ll have to buy the book to find out all about interior designer, Jane, her nuclear physicist husband, Bill, her strikingly beautiful sister, Jane, and a philandering Italian dentist called Angelo.]

Jane had reached a conclusion and it was time to tell Bill. ‘Let’s do it,’ she said.

Bill was simultaneously excited, scared, worried and sceptical. ‘But what about your work? Your shops?’

Jane looked regretful, but only for a second. ‘I can commute. I can do select projects. Hey, I could even project-manage other designers. We’ll find a way. Look, Bill, I’ve spent my life complaining about the velleitous folk who only talk the talk. I need to expel a little velleity of my own and just support us.’