Bill Long 10/22/04
Flying, Rolling, Attacking and Turning Inward
Now we are ready to see how words relating to volo, volvo, volito and involo have come into English. After patient consideration of the thoughts of the previous essay, things fall neatly into place.
Beginning with Involute
We really can have a lot of fun with involute.* The Latin behind it is a direct link to the English. It means, as an adjective, "involved, entangled, intricate, hidden, obscure" (though the OED says that the last is "obsolete." Maybe for them.); or "rolled or curled up spirally." It finds its home, therefore, in the volvo-type words. Thus its general meaning has become extended to conchology and botany. There is even a mathematical signfication of the term--to suggest a curve created when a piece of thread is unraveled from the spool (this is the "easy" and "visual" definition). Finally, involute is a verb in English, mostly used by the medical profession, to mean either a returning to a normal condition or a "rolling, curling, or turning inwards."
[*A volute, which also is something that "rolls" or "turns," is the scroll at the capital of the Ionic column.]
Most powerful for me, however, is the simple adjectival meaning of involute as hidden or entangled. Edgar Allen Poe uses it memorably in The Murders in the Rue Morgue: "The possible moves [in chess] being not only manifold, but involute, the chances of such oversight are multiplied." Like most good words, it was used by a Puritan preacher, "Earthly-mindedness..was really forbidden according to the more retired and involute sense of the law." Such a preacher might say that we are, paraphrasing Psalm 139, wonderfully and involutely made.
I would use it today to describe the hidden nature of human motivations or the entanglements of our lives. "His involute explanation mirrored the confusion in his mind as to what to do." Not only are the paths to the heart often invious, but the way to get to it is involute. I used to think that women wanted me to be simple and straightforward, transparent in everything. I have since learned that there is a large contingent that more appreciates the involute than the transparent, the intricate than the simple. Or, "We all know good novels which are complex, involute, tortuous."
We continue our trek. It is no stretch to understand why involate means "to fly into or upon," even if there is no quotation in the OED to show its use. The only uses of the term I came up with in an internet search was where inviolate was used improperly. Inviolate, of course, comes from a different root and means "unhurt or uninjured," but it is amusing to see quotations of people who hold things involate." It is reminiscent of my listening to a Kansas preacher one day speak about the need to eradicate the scrounge of racism.
Back to involation. Involation is attested and is derived from the third meaning of the Latin term involatus. In English it means "a seizing by or as by robbery, plunder." [It also means, more predictably, "flying into or upon."] You are flying against something in attack, and so you plunder it. From 1759, "The Dr... adventured...to invade it by Surreption and Involation." I think the looting of cities, or even the frenetic piling on of a runner in a football game, can be captured by the word involation. Why not make up a new word involvation, to suggest not simply the ransacking or piling on but the fact that things are turned upside down or rolled completely out of control when they are attacked?
Now, the Tough Stuff
So, we have a few English words that now beg to be sorted out, from voluble to involuble (make sure you distinguish between involuble and invaluable. It doesn't cost much effort to do so) to involatile to volatile. Let's start with the latter two.
The OED defines involatile in two ways: "not flying or wingless (which it says is obsolete)" and "not volatile; incapable of being vaporized." We should really know something about volatile now. It is derived from volo meaning "to fly," so let's see how we can tease out a meaning that means "combustible" (my early college definition) or something like it. Its range of meanings in the OED goes from a) flying to b) something so light as to be able to fly about to c) moving or flitting with rapidity from one place to another to d) "characterized by a natural tendency to dispersion in fumes or vapor; liable to evaporation" to e) changeable or fickle to f) readily vanishing or disappearing. Bingo. One can have a volatile mind because one is fickle; something is volatile literally because it flies away or disperses or vanishes. For some reason I have always thought that volatility has to do with "burning up" but it really doesn't. It has to do with vaporizing and instability. Thus, the word involatile is perfectly understandable. It has a scientific usage, but I would like to see it used humanistically to describe a calm person.
Then, and finally, we move quickly to voluble and involuble. Voluble comes from the volvo branch, and so will suggest a a turning or rolling, as indeed some of its supposedly obsolete definitions indicated. But, the third OED definition is "moving rapidly and easy, especially with a gliding or undulating movement," and then, by the time you get to the sixth definition, we have voluble as I learned it: "characterized by great fluency or readiness of utterance." We now see the connection between something rolling along and words rolling right out from the mouth. Thus, something that is involuble is something that cannot roll, so to speak; something that "cannot turn or change; immutable." Interestingly, involuble has nothing to do with lack of fluency. Perhaps the word "inarticulate" covers the bases just as well. Thomas Hobbes also uses involuble in its more literal signification as "incapable of being rolled up": "Vast and involuble volumes concerning predestination."
Hm. Maybe we can use the phrase involuble volumes to speak of something else: the inarticulate but repeated words of any speaker. Indeed, maybe the OED has it wrong, and Hobbes' use of the term really means "inarticulate" rather than "incapable of being rolled up."
Thus, we gain several new words or understand several old ones through this exercise. We now have involuble volumes as a way of capturing massive inarticulateness (i.e., words that don't "flow"); we have involvation to describe a massive piling on or overturning of something; and then we have now sorted out all those valuable terms relating to flying, turning, disappearing, and flowing. An invaluable harvest, don't you think?
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long