The paradox of our New Year's resolutions

The origin of the word may point to the wisdom of breaking up your ambitious 2014 plans into reasonable parts.

Michael Dwyer/AP
Marchers make their way down Boylston Street during a parade as part of New Year's Eve celebrations in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013.

I take my New Year's resolutions perhaps more seriously than I should, certainly more seriously than my record of actually keeping them justifies.

And as I've noodled over my goals for 2014, I've stumbled on an essential paradox: The word we use to refer to our promises to strengthen our character has connections to the ideas of weakness and laxity.

Resolution, as in New Year's resolutions, is related to the idea of "solving." Solve is from the Latin solvere, with the meanings of "loosen, dissolve; untie, release, detach; depart; unlock; scatter; dismiss," among other things, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. If the ancient Romans had snow-removal problems, this might be the verb they used to describe how they "solved" them.

Resolve is from a corresponding Latin verb, resolvere, with that familiar "re" element that often means, in English as in Latin, "back" or "again." As a transitive verb, resolve first meant to melt or turn into a liquid. Etymologically, one might say that the sun "resolved" the snow and ice.

By the 1520s, resolve was being used in an abstract sense for what one did to questions or what we today call "issues": "The council resolved the matter by granting licenses to both applicants." Within a century, this verb usage led to resolve being used as a noun to mean firmness or fixedness of purpose, or a specific instance of this, such as "a resolve to improve the town's finances."

Or, in a quotation widely attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) – comma splice and all – "Obstacles cannot crush me, every obstacle yields to stern resolve."

But resolute, the adjective that corresponds to this noun sense, actually started out, in the early 14th century, meaning "dissolved," or "of loose structure," or even, of people, "morally lax," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

That changed during the 1500s, though, as resolve picked up connotations of moral firmness. A "resolute answer," what contemporary game-show hosts call "a final answer," was a common phrase then.

As the dictionary explains, "The notion is of 'breaking (something) into parts' as the way to arrive at the truth of it and thus make the final determination."

The notion of "resolution authority" for banks "too big to fail," part of the regulatory discussion since the global financial crisis of 2008, is rooted in this sense. As a 2012 press release from the European Union explained: " 'Resolution' means the restructuring of an institution in order to ensure the continuity of its essential functions, preserve financial stability and restore the viability of all or part of that institution."

On a personal domestic scale, the process of going through the clothes closet to determine which items need cleaning or mending, which should be given away, and which should be consigned to the rag bag is a kind of "resolution authority."

So even though there's a strong case for relating our New Year's resolutions to Leonardo's "stern resolve," there's an etymological case for "resolution" that breaks things up into manageable parts.

This makes "resolution" less an effort at a complete reprogramming of one's life than a judicious triage: This I can reasonably do, with effort. That is going to be too much, for now, at least. The other thing over there will happen anyway, with no real effort on my part. There, I feel better already; don't you?

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