A “Resolution” in the new year

That really ought to be the same as “new year’s resolution,” shouldn’t it? But the meaning of “new year’s resolution” turns out to be every bit as puzzling as why we make them and why we, mostly, fail to keep them.

It occurred to me this year that I could come at the whole process from the other side. resolution-5Let’s look at what the word itself—as opposed to our use of it—would like to be or what it would like to do. It’s a little like agreeing to recognize gravity or inertia. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that the word’s intentions have been frustrating our intentions. There are quite a few things wrong with that formulation. [1] But I do want to start with the word.

Note: I am going to put words in bold when I mean to refer to the word itself, rather than to the meaning of the word, and in italics if it is a precursor of an English word.  I know that “precursor” sounds ethnocentric, but all my readers will read this in English.

I want to start with the Greek verb, luein, “to loosen.” I’m going to step away slowly, with my hands always in plain sight. No need to panic. The Latin version of luein is luere, also “to loose.” [2] We see it in soluere, “to detach, set loose, or free” and we get there very easily by adding se- to the root. That is what they call a privative, meaning that it is a prefix that marks the absence of something or the distortion of something. [3] This gets us as far as the Middle Latin solvere, which is as close to solve as we need to get in order to appreciate resolve.

Resolve, as we all know, does not mean “to solve again.” The function of the prefix re- is “again” sometimes (repeat) but it is often an intensive, where it means “really, really,” and that is what it means here.

Obviously, when we have gotten as far as resolve, the verb, we are at the threshold of resolution, the noun, which is the form we use for a “new year’s resolution.”

Resolution is the noun form of the verb resolve. When I “resolve” something, I have “made a resolution.” One of the meanings the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives is:

IV. To determine or fix upon a course of action.
a. trans. To determine or decide upon (a course of action, something to be achieved or brought about, etc.); to make (something) one’s firm intention.

An early example of this meaning can be seen in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

1594   Shakespeare Titus Andronicus ii. i. 106   So must you resolue, That..You must perforce accomplish as you may.

A later, and more familiar, example comes from Abraham Lincoln:

That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

So a resolution is a “resolving-ness” of a sort. An earlier English would have offered us “a new year’s resolve” and even today, people would likely understand what you meant by that expression. But we now know—this is the main argument of the essay down to this point—that the word wants to mean “a loosening of something.”

We may be able to see “solve a problem” as a sort of bridge usage. The meaning of “solve” in the problem usage and of “solve” in the untying of something are close enough that we can see that they could both mean the same thing. You could “untie” a problem in the sense of “loosening” a knot.

I call that usage a bridge because it connects the early “to release something from its bonds” meaning and the later meaning.  This is the OED again:

to solve (a problem) (1564; 1690 with specific reference to a mathematical problem, 1765 with specific reference to an equation),

January 1, 2017

So it’s a bright Sunday morning and I want to “make some resolutions.” This year, because I have given some thought to what the word “resolution” really wants to be, I am led to think about things that I should untie, things I should “undo” in the way I undo the knot in my shoelaces.

resolution-2These are not things I am going to decide to do, as if they were foreign countries I had not yet invaded or competitors I had not yet eliminated. These are not decisions that I have been struggling with—a di-lemma is a common kind of struggle [4]—what with the two lemmas to deal with.

  • Imagine a woman who is trying to decide whether to continue to be married to her husband or whether to deal with “the bonds of marriage” by loosening them.
  • Imagine a man who has gotten himself involved in overlapping and incompatible committee assignments and who has decided to “un-tie” that knot by a resolution of it.
  • Imagine a caregiver who has both a child who needs special care [5] and whose elderly mother also needs special care. She has been unwilling or unable to engage other members of the family in providing the needed care and also unwilling or unable to share the duties with trained professionals. This knot is tied so tight that sometimes it feels to her as if it is tied around her neck. I say the new year is a great time for un-tying.

The word resolution, based as it is—fundamentally, but distantly, on the Greek verb luein, “to loosen”—has a natural tendency to suggest meanings of untying; of un-doing, rather than more doing. We should treat this word like a horse that knows where the barn is, even if we do not, and just give it it’s head. That will require a little loosening of the reins, of course, but what could be more appropriate?

[1] You always roll the dice a little when you attribute agency to something that cannot resolution-4intend anything and then act on that intention. On the other hand, sometimes it is the easiest way to say something and if you stay vigilant, it doesn’t do any harm. Take Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, for instance. Dawkins does not think that genes “intend;” his contention is that imagining that they do helps us make sense of the pattern of their actions.
[2] If you were thinking of a Toulouse-Lautrec joke, this would be the place for it. It’s not a joke I would want to make, myself.
[3] I think my favorite example is the se- in seduce. The -duce part just means “to lead.” The privative se- here means, “away” or, commonly “astray.”
[4] A lemma is a proposition proved or just assumed to be true. Having two irreconcilable lemmas is a dilemma.
[5] What child doesn’t need special care? Still, you know what I mean.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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