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It is apparently hunting jargon term meaning to fall off of a horse. Definition below from Dictionary of Jargon (Routledge Revivals) By Jonathon Green:

cut a voluntary v. [Hunting] to fall from one's horse when hunting

It appears in Peter Fleming's 1936 travel book "News from Tartary", though apparently not directly related to hunting:

Kini, in fact, cut a voluntary while galloping after the camels.

What could be the origin of this?

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  • oed.com/dictionary/cut_v?tl=true#7592932 suggests a first recorded use in 1863 for falling without sufficient cause
    – Henry
    Commented Jan 3 at 7:09
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    It's rather ironic that the voluntary is in fact involuntary.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jan 3 at 8:16
  • I'd guess it was intended as a joke. The OED has this sense of "voluntary" but doesn't offer any explanation. There is a rare sense of "voluntary" meaning a voluntary action but the only citation is 1652 so it doesn't seem connected (its use would be ironic). There are however several other senses of voluntary, for voluntary, freely-chosen, or extemporary pieces of music, writing, etc. But I'd only be guessing if I theorised further.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 3 at 10:14
  • I think it referred originally to a conscripted soldier's self-inflicted injury (i.e. to avoid death in battle). It had nothing to do with hunting.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3 at 12:10
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    Since you already have an answer, I will just add what’s missing: The OED’s parent entry for voluntary under which cut a voluntary falls is: Free will or choice; something done or created spontaneously or without direction. When you stupidly fall off a horse, you can’t justify it by blaming the horse or the stirrups or the jump. You did it all by yourself! Commented Jan 4 at 3:10

2 Answers 2

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Voluntary is a substantive. -> an action done of one's own volition.

OED

Voluntary (n.)

I.7. A parting of a rider from his or her horse without sufficient cause; an unwarranted fall. Frequently to cut a voluntary.

1863 A conscript, who could keep his saddle, through an entire day, without ‘taking a voluntary’, was considered..a credit to the regiment. G. A. Lawrence, Border & Bastille ii 33

1883 They will say I cut a voluntary... The stirrup-leather alone was to blame. E. Kennard, Right Sort xxi

1890 The number of ‘voluntaries’ which are ever taking place in the hunting field. Field 8 February 177

The sense of the verb “to cut” [now rare] is given at

OED

VI.25. To perform or execute (an action, gesture, or display of a grotesque, striking, or notable kind): chiefly in certain established phrases, as to cut a caper at caper n.2 b, to cut a dash at dash n.1 10, to cut a figure, to cut a joke, to cut a voluntary at voluntary n. C.I.7. Also, to cut an antic, to cut a curvet, to cut a flourish; to cut faces, to make grimaces, distort the features.

1811 I cut one of my best opera flourishes. W. Irving, Life & Letters (1864) vol. I. xvii. 262

1835 Two of us..saw a fellow..cutting queer antics. W. Irving, Tour on Prairies xxii

For "unwarranted" = unwarranted by an exterior agency

OED [un]warranted

9.a. To give (a person) warrant or authority, authorize (to do something); to authorize, sanction (a course of action).

1859 What most perplexes me is some names in the list of those who have warranted this step. Keble in J. O. Johnston, Life & Letters J. Parry Liddon (1904) 47

Added 20240104

If there is a discoverable origin to the phrase to cut a voluntary (that seems to be British understatement/irony with its origins in the jargon of the British military of the 19th century) the following (OED) is probably a good candidate.

Voluntary (n.)

I.2.b. A musical piece or movement played or sung spontaneously or of one's free choice, esp. by way of prelude to a more elaborate piece, song, etc.

1598 Preludio, a proheme in musicke, a voluntary before the song. J. Florio, Worlde of Wordes

a1753 Something in the nature of a flourish, or of a voluntary before the tune. R. Newton, translation of Theophrastus, Characters (1754) 7

1848 Sitting down to the piano, she rattled away a triumphant voluntary on the keys. W. M. Thackeray, Vanity Fair xlviii. 432

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    Explains the collocation, but not why 'voluntary' itself was used for "an unwarranted fall." Commented Jan 3 at 14:29
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    Your definition of "unwarranted" is not the right one. It means "unnecessary, avoidable, unjustified" not "unsanctioned".
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3 at 14:57
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    What would it mean to say that someone had been given permission or authority to fall off his horse?
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3 at 15:04
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    @Greybeard I don't know what you meant by saying that I am "insisting on ignorance" when I asked you explain what it would mean to say that someone had been given permission to fall off his horse. I thought I was giving you the opportunity to explain your reasoning there, but since you don't wish to do so, I will oblige with a downvote.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3 at 15:36
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    @Greybeard Well, I'm not certain about the origin, though I do strongly suspect that it had something to do with an intentionally self-inflicted injury. The 1863 date of the attestation coincides with the very unpopular First Conscription Act, which made all men aged 20-45 eligible to be called up for military service in the US Civil War, to fight against the Confederates. There were riots in the streets of New York City because the act was regarded as unfair to the poor as it was legal to pay a fee to the government to exempt oneself, or to hire a substitute to stand in one's stead.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 3 at 20:43
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This is just a placeholder for an answer since I have to deal with some emergency plumbing issues at the moment.

EDIT: I an becoming more convinced that the origin of the phrase "cut|take a voluntary" is ultimately military. The earliest unambiguous military attestation I'd been able to find was in the context of conscripts in the US Civil War in a book written by a Brit who was visiting the States at the time (see below). But @TinfoilHat has floated in a comment below an attestation from a decade earlier, in a steeplechase context. In further support of the military origin, here is a description of a veritable "epidemic" of self-maiming in the British army from ON THE ENLISTING, THE DISCHARGING, AND THE PENSIONING OF SOLDIERS by Henry Marshall (Edinburgh, 1839)

The practice of maiming has been so frequent in some regiments as to appear epidemic. The author belonged to a regiment in which nine men maimed themselves in the course of six weeks and in every instance the injury was presumed to have been inflicted voluntarily. The explosion of their own muskets was the plan they invariably adopted to effect their purpose and the injury was always in a foot or a hand. They all, as may be inferred, attributed the explosion of the musket to accident and not to design, but one man who maimed himself in a necessary found much difficulty to account for his taking a loaded musket into a place of that kind. Very lately when Regiment was at Cork and about to embark for the West Indies, four of the men made their appearance with the first joint of the thumb of the right hand mutilated. Voluntary mutilation sometimes takes place under very extraordinary circumstances even during a conflict with an enemy.

From Border and bastille by George A. Lawrence (a Brit), which was published in New York in 1863 and is catalogued by the US Library of Congress under United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865:

On the outbreak of the war, volunteers enlisted in the Federal cavalry, who --far from being able to manage a horse-- could not bridle one without assistance; and a conscript, who could keep his saddle through an entire day, without "taking a voluntary", was considered by his fellows as a credit to the regiment, and almost an accomplished dragoon. Such a thing as a military riding- school has, I believe, never been thought of, away from West Point; the drill is simply that of mounted infantry. Things are better now than they were; a Federal cavalryman can at least sit saddle-fast, to receive and return a sabre-cut; there have been some sharp skirmishes of late, and, allowing for exaggeration, Averill s encounter with Fitzhugh Lee brought out real work on both sides.

By putting the phrase "taking a voluntary" in quotes, Lawrence seems to be quoting a phrase he has heard while visiting the encampments of the US Army, one not already familiar to a British audience.

In the chapter where the paragraph above appears, he is far more concerned about the way horses are treated by the northern Army than about the plight of the men. He speaks of the squalor of encampments and the lack of esprit du corps among the lower ranks of soldiers, the result of which is a high rate of mortality for the horses:

That utter absence of esprit du corps and soldierly self-respect, has cost the Federal treasury many millions; nor will the drain ever cease till "re-mounts" shall be no more needed.

The foregoing remarks apply exclusively to the tenue of the privates and non-commissioned officers; those of superior rank that I met were tolerably correct, both in dress and equipment; several, indeed, were mounted on really powerful chargers, and rode them not amiss, though with a seat as unprofessional as can be conceived.

P.S. Evidence of the phrase origin would be an attestation (ideally additional attestations) for the posited explanation. We know the phrase is used in hunting; slang dictionaries before Green's have glossed the phrase as "to fall off a horse while hunting" and attestations can be found. But the earliest attestation so far is a cavalry context. Did the phrase begin in hunting or cavalry? And if the latter, was it a long-standing British cavalry phrase predating 1863 or was it coined as American military jargon or American military slang? In the same chapter, George A. Lawrence does indeed refer to US military jargon ("re-mounts"). So it is not implausible that he was citing two terms he had heard used in the US Army on his visit to the States. The question is open -- from a lexicographical perspective.

P.P.S. You might be surprised by how often you'd hear the word "bespoke" these days here in the good old US of A. The borrowing is a two-way street.

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  • George A. Lawrence (a Brit), … “taking a voluntary”. A Brit using a British phrase that is placed in inverted commas for an American audience? Not surprising. Surely this suggests that he heard it in the UK and was introducing it to a foreign audience? The phrase is entirely unrelated to the politics of the day. Lawrence was well versed in British military jargon Lawrence seems to be quoting a phrase he has heard while visiting the encampments of the US Army Ockham's Razor: surely he's introducing British military jargon that he already knew. Is there any other example of US use?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jan 4 at 16:49
  • So "to cut a voluntary" is, perhaps "to act in the fashion of a volunteer who cannot remain mounted on their horse"; perhaps recognising that the target is a skilled rider for whom this is not usual behaviour. Commented Jan 4 at 17:16
  • @Greybeard Your alternative reading of the quotation marks around the phrase, introducing a British phrase to an American audience, is not implausible, though from what I've read in the book so far it doesn't seem addressed to an American audience. Do you have a British attestation that predates the 1863 attestation, showing it to be British military jargon already in use?
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 4 at 18:05
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    But we already know it comes from hunting. I mean, I wouldn't argue with Jonathon Green. The question remains how voluntary came to relate to falling off a horse. Commented Jan 4 at 18:57
  • @TinfoilHat You can find lots of things in books. Without an attestation, it's just one man's opinion. It could be right, or it could be wrong.
    – TimR
    Commented Jan 4 at 20:45

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