“New year, new me,” as so many of us are starting out 2017, resolved to lose weight, save money, or variously better ourselves and lives. Historians trace the practice of making self-improving resolutions in observance of the new year all the way back to ancient Babylon. But why do we call them resolutions?
The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the phrase New Year’s resolution in American author and minister Edward Everett Hale’s 1850 Margaret Percival in America: “I am here, ready, from this moment to obey. It shall be my New Year’s resolution,” says the titular Margaret, forswearing some friends leading her astray from the (apparently) better judgment of her priest and church. Such a resolution – an action one has resolved, or firmly decided, to do – is much older, dating to the late 1400s.
But the earlier meanings of resolution and resolve don’t sound so, well, resolute: Back in 1390s, the words were used in scientific contexts for “breaking a substance down into its component parts.” Intensified by the prefix re- (“back”), resolution and resolve come form the Latin verb solvere, meaning “to loosen,” among many other extended senses. (The deeper, Indo-European root, *se-lu-, suggests something like “loosened apart.”) Chemistry still shows the ‘etymological’ sense of Latin’s solvere: A solution, loosely, is a kind of uniform mixture of one substance completely dissolved in another. Indeed, dissolve is the first of this word family to appear in written English, used for “melt” in the 1380s.
But in math and more generally, a solution is something that seems far from “broken down”: It’s an answer. What gives? There’s a metaphor to this madness: When we take something apart (literally solving it), we can see how it works; this helps us to better understand its fundamental nature (figuratively solving it). And when we truly know something, we can thus make a determined – a resolute – decision. Looseness becomes firmness.
This January, if you miss a day at the gym and worry your New Year’s resolution is falling apart, look to etymology for some encouragement. Sometimes it’s in breaking down that we build ourselves back up.