Volunteer- what’s in a word?

This post started as I got sucked into using Google Labs’ Ngram Viewer– a tool that offers visual representations of the usage of words in books published going back 500 years ago.

Let’s put the statistical complexities to one side for a moment, what makes this fascinating is that it offers us a kind of visualisation where words become proxies for all sorts of concepts and actions in our culture/s. For example, take this ngram below.

Information – Data – Knowledge

The blue line is ‘information’, red line is ‘data’, and the green line is ‘knowledge’ and their level of usage in books since the year 1700.

For sure, there are different ways of interpreting this graph. One might be that while our perception of the amount of information seems to be increasing over the centuries, knowledge is relatively constant. A pithy summary might be that: more information (and data) does not necessarily lead to more knowledge.

It occurred to me that it might be fun to check out what ngrams tell us about how our use of the word ‘volunteer’ has evolved.

So first up is the word ‘volunteer‘.


It shows the growth of the use of the word ‘volunteer’. First, it bares out the historic use of the word volunteer in a military context. The peaks coincide with major wars that affected the English-speaking world: Napoleonic wars in early 1800s, American Civil War (1861-65), First World War (1914-18) and to a lesser degree the Second World War.

This decline in usage seems to suggest that already by the Second World War, the word volunteer was losing its distinctive and overriding military meaning. In addition, what’s striking is how usage of the word has steadily increased since the Second World War.

It points to the fact that we at a historic high in usage of the word volunteer.

Up to now it was only possible to look at trends through Google data on searches. This shows that the use of the word ‘volunteer’ has been pretty static. If anything, it’s gone down a little bit.

What’s interesting with the Ngram Viewer is that it holds out the possibility to get more historical perspective on the use of the term ‘volunteer’.

We know from sources across the centuries that the word ‘volunteer’ was used almost exclusively in a military context (particularly at sea). A cursory Google Book search bares this out with some publications about volunteering in the 19th Century.

A look at the records from the Old Bailey that include transcriptions of verbal testimony during trials between 1674-1913 gives more of a flavour of this. In particular, it offers a vivid insight into how the word ‘volunteer’ was used in spoken English many, many years ago.

Here are some typical examples:

“John Breams, The Younger Brother, was Condemned for the same Murther of Henry Hutton. He denied not that the dead person was run through by him; He was a Volunteer in the Sea-service very lately; He said that he did heartily repent, that he was drunk when he committed the sin of Murther…”

– A True ACCOUNT of the BEHAVIOUR, CONFESSION, AND Last Dying SPEECHES Of the Criminals that were Executed at TYBURN, On Wednesday the 20th of December, 1693.

“His character was exceeding good; he suttled for the camp both at home and abroad; he never was punished neither at home nor abroad, to my knowledge; he is in the same regiment with me, but not in the same battalion; he went a volunteer into another, when the volunteers went abroad, and he was of very great service to us abroad; he has a family, and has endeavoured hard to bring them up.”

William Chamberlayne, Theft > grand larceny, 5th April 1758.

“He had before told me, that he was a native of Hampshire, but of a French descent, as he believed; was under 24 years of age; that his father was a gentleman; but both his parents were dead. He was enter’d a volunteer on board the Fougueux man-of-war, when eight years of age, at 17s. 6d. a month, and walk’d the quarterdeck; he was afterwards midshipman aboard the Bristol, three years; then in the Antigua sloop, two years and upwards; then in the Nassau, six months; in which he returned from the West-Indies, and was paid off at Chatham.”

– THE ORDINARY of NEWGATE’S ACCOUNT of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words OF FIVE MALEFACTORS, VIZ.- Ordinary’s Account, 20th April 1761.

If you change the terminology to ‘volunteering‘, it shifts it slightly to more recent usage. Though it is still predominantly military (with the peaks correlating with the major wars cited above), it does accentuate the sharp post-war increase.


Comparing terminology the word volunteering has been overtaken by the use of the phrase ‘community service‘ in the late 1970s. It’s interesting that the origin of the use of the phrase ‘community service’ seems to be at the time of the First World War.

It seems to suggest that community service has been a powerful bridge between the military and civilian forms of engagement. So while volunteering as a concept is firmly rooted in a military context, community service increasingly common usage also has it’s first tender shoots in a military context.

What then happens with the Second World War is that there’s a lag between ‘volunteering’ usage and ‘community service’ usage- from which usage of ‘community service’ as a term grows and grows- eventually outstripping ‘volunteering’ today.

Volunteering – Community Service

With connected concepts there are also insights. For example, with the phrase ‘civil society‘ you get two peaks. One at the beginning of the 1800s when it was associated more with the emergence of a new non-militarised society. At this time, civil society was a term used in political argument, spurred on by Jean-Jacques Rousseau amongst others. But it’s striking how the post-modern version of the concept has rocketed since the early 1980s.

Civil Society

Macro-level terminology is changing the language of how we explain the meaning of volunteering. In particular, with the growth of the web, the term ‘community’ has been used more and more. In the last few years, the word ‘community’ has started to appear more in published literature than the word ‘society’- a word that emerged suddenly at the beginning of the 19th century in relation. Perhaps this is because of the links between the concepts of society and state, that the looser construct of the ‘community’ fits better in an online world where hard divisions between social groupings along state lines are disappearing.

Society – Community

Other concepts that are often associated with volunteering, such as ‘donations’ and ‘alms’ give a more complex sense of the change in language usage. Though less, ‘donations’ has tracked ‘alms’ since the 1700s.

Only recently, really since the beginning of the 1970s has the word ‘donations’ been used more than the word ‘alms’. Amongst other things, it suggests how much of the terminology around volunteering has historically been heavily influenced by religious concepts.

Donations – Alms

Rights – Duties

Gap between rights and duties is opening up, particularly in the post-war period. It seems the trend has been to define rights, rather than discern duties. It’s interesting in relation to the debate around volunteering as a right, or as a duty to others.

Volunteer – Amateur

The idea of the amateur was popular during the Second World War, then has steadily declined. 1970s feel significant which is when the idea of volunteerism overtook amateurism.

Volunteer Management (1950-2008)

Almost as a postscript- volunteer management isn’t really mentioned before 1965, becomes stronger in the 1990s and then has rocketed in the last couple of years [graph above has zero smoothing].

Anyway, will leave it at that- have a go yourself and share what you find. Cheers.

PS: for endless fun check out the ngrams tumblr blog 🙂

More on my blog here about exploring volunteering.

About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

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