Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered….
—Tennyson, “The Charge of the Light Brigade


The 1913 Webster’s offered these definitions of the English word volley as a noun:
A flight of missiles, as arrows, bullets, or the like; the simultaneous discharge of a number of small arms.
A burst or emission of many things at once; as, a volley of words.
(Tennis) A return of the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) A sending of the ball full to the top of the wicket.


Used as a verb, the way Tennyson did, volley means:

To be thrown out, or discharged, at once; to be discharged in a volley, or as if in a volley.

(Tennis) To return the ball before it touches the ground. (Cricket) To send the ball full to the top of the wicket.

Although that dictionary mentioned tennis and cricket, it omitted volleyball, a game that had come into being in 1895 and apparently still wasn’t well-known in 1913.


English borrowed volley from French volée, a feminine past participle used as a noun. The infinitive of the verb was voler ‘to fly,’ from the Latin volāre that had also given rise to Spanish volar and Italian volare (which people of a certain age remember from the hit song of 1958). We note that Spanish has borrowed English volleyball directly as voleibol and also less directly (and never, in my experience) as balonvolea.


Where volley is an uncommon verb in English, Spanish volar ‘to fly’ is quite common. It has produced various derivatives, a few of which are:


vuelo ‘flight’ (also volada, the cognate of French volée);
voladizo ‘projecting’ (in architecture);
volador ‘flying’ (and as a noun ‘flying fish’ and ‘a type of rocket’);
volante, whose various meanings are listed here.
volear ‘to volley’ (in sports).


© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

17 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 15, 2015 @ 20:17:09

    I’m of that certain age, and all it takes is seeing the word volare for both the tune and the lyrics to pop up. A couple of years after the song came out, our high school foreign exchange student was from Italy. I can’t remember his name, but I remember his Italian leather shoes, and his extraordinary handsomeness. He sang Volare for a school talent show. It was memorable.

    As for “volley,” it’s been given new life as Volley, an HTTP library for Android app developers. I dug around a little, and it seems the definitional sense of allowing for “a burst or emission of many things at once” fits perfectly well.


  2. Maria F.
    Jul 15, 2015 @ 21:15:26

    It was probably Bobby Rydell:


  3. Maria F.
    Jul 15, 2015 @ 21:29:57

    Wait, this is an American singer, well enjoy the music anyway…


  4. Maria F.
    Jul 15, 2015 @ 21:57:48

    Yes, that’s the original one, but Bobby Rydell’s version was still very popular in the 1960’s; that’s why I remembered it. The Italian one was used in Italian language courses.


  5. Maria F.
    Jul 15, 2015 @ 22:19:06

    I’m not surprised about “balonvolea” existing in either S. America or Spain, because another similar word for football (specially soccer) is “balompié”. So it’s probably the way it’s called in some Spanish regions, or Latin America.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: