What do the new year, a symphony, a legislature, and a high-definition TV all have in common? Resolutions!
This time of year, most of us are thinking about the new year’s resolution — a statement of purpose and intent for self-improvement — but the word is used across many disciplines and bears many meanings. Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition, lists 13 definitions plus re-solution, and that’s from the days before digital television.
Here are just a few of the more common resolutions out there:
- In music: The passing from a dissonant tone to a consonant tone
- In chemistry: The act of separating a mixture or compound into its component parts
- In literature: The point in a manuscript at which the primary dramatic complication is worked out
- In government: The formal expression of the opinion or will of a legislature or public assembly
- In mathematics: The answer to a problem
- In optics (and TV): The ability to make the individual parts of an object or image distinguishable
Resolution’s many-faceted life is a result of its relationship to both resolute “marked by firm determination” and resolve, which itself has numerous definitions. All three words stem from the Latin resolvere “loosen, untie, relax.”
Most of resolution’s definitions can be connected to the idea of manipulating individual parts of a whole, though, paradoxically, it can involve both taking them apart and bringing them all together.
What began life meaning “a breaking into parts” (what people outside of scientific circles might think of as dissolution or dissolving) took on the sense of the answer to a question or math problem — that is, a solution — sometime during the early 16th century. Considering that solution worked just fine, I have to wonder if that particular usage of resolution didn’t evolve from academics’ desire to sound even more educated and superior.
About the same time, resolute came on the scene meaning “the power of holding firmly,” which sounds like the opposite of resolvere, “loosen, untie, relax.” English is weird that way.
In music, the idea of being resolute and the sense of resolve as a “completion” bled together. A musical resolution is a harmonic shift from a dissonance, which can sound unfinished in both a melodic and harmonic sense, to a consonance, which sounds more resolute and can mark the completion of a musical phrase.
The new year’s resolution dates to the mid- to late 1700s. Such annual intentions to better oneself were originally more pious in nature than they are today.
The “expression of the will or opinion of a meeting” sense of resolution appeared at the beginning of the 17th century. Here we can see the connection of parts and wholes — many votes expressed as one voice.
As optics were developed during the 19th century, resolution took on the meaning of a microscope’s or telescope’s ability to allow scientists to distinguish one part or item from another. In the 20th century, this would be applied to TV sets and computer monitors.
We English speakers have gotten a lot of use out of resolution over the centuries. Today, new year’s resolutions might include buying a higher-resolution TV, reaching the resolution of the novel you’re writing, or finding a resolution to a family problem.
What are your resolutions for the new year?