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GLOSSARY / Survival of the fittest keeps poetry in motion

RESIGNATION. The fact of resigning oneself or of being resigned; acquiescence, submission, compliance. Oh yeah, sure - try telling that to Michael Mates and Norman Lamont.

Of course, the Oxford English Dictionary is right. It is still just about possible to talk of 'Christian resignation' (rather literally in the case of the Bishop of Durham) or to say of someone that they are resigned to their fate. But it seems unlikely that this particular nuance1 can hold out for long against the white- knuckled reluctance of modern office-holders to loosen their grip on power. To read this entry, to feel the jarring disparity between the ancient meaning and modern practice, is to see a word on the very verge of succumbing to the Darwinism of language - in which a successful usage (one that breeds most effectively in speech and print) overwhelms a weaker one.

Today, resignation is almost exclusively used in its principal sense (that of surrendering an office or power) but the practice itself has become so lacking in principle, in any sense of a dignified submission of private interest to public good, that it is bound to colour secondary meanings - even grammar. Already 'resignation' inevitably suggests 'sacked', and a volunteered resignation will lead to muttered suspicions about compromising photographs or covert blackmail. It will not be long, perhaps, before it is possible to talk of 'being resigned' only in a sentence such as: 'Being resigned is an occupational hazard for cabinet ministers.'

Until fairly recently, in fact, resign has been stable in its meanings. It derives from a Latin word meaning to unseal, 'un-sign', or cancel2 , suggesting that it has its origins in something done to the formal documentation conferring a post or power. It also has specific technical uses in ecclesiastical law and metaphorical uses that suggest submission and surrender to a higher authority (God or fate).

But the strains on resignation are beginning to tell. It might sound implausible to suggest that its meaning could shift radically within a few generations, but you have only to look in the dictionary to see that it has happened before. It is one of the glories of the OED that it records the continental drift and landslips of language, reminding you constantly that even words that feel solid beneath our feet are actually in motion.

The most familiar example is naughty, a word that begins at one end of the spectrum of human sin and travels in a relatively short space of time to the opposite extreme. You catch its original flavour in this splendid line from a sermon of 1677: 'A most vile flagitious man, as sorry and naughty governor as could be.' Flagitious, which means profoundly wicked (from the Latin flagitum, a shameful crime), is now extinct (Gladstone is the last person cited as using it); 'naughty', on the other hand, has been adapted and now ekes out a living in the trivial3 sins of children. Both meanings of naughty overlap towards the end of the 17th century but by the beginning of the 18th, the conquest is virtually complete. Today, classroom Shakespeare suffers from the fact that a word written in the first sense is almost always read in the second.

'Sentimental' has a similar history. At first it is entirely approbatory, a word for the capacity for refined and elevated feeling. A young lady in 1749 writes that 'every thing clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word . . .' By 1823, though, you can hear a nasal pinch of contempt in Southey's remark that 'Rousseau addressed himself to the sentimental classes . . . who believe themselves to be composed of finer elements than the gross multitude'. Very shortly afterwards the word has completed its fall, from rapt admiration to casual disdain. The infection may yet take 'sentiment' (a good word for a real thing) along with it.

Both examples suggest that the sense of 'resignation' as a dignified acceptance of reversals and misfortune cannot long survive the disappearance of the mood itself. A few generations from now the definition will probably read very differently: Resignation. The fact of having been dismissed; vengeful self-justification, bitterness, resentment.

1 From the French nuer, to shade, from nue, cloud (Latin nubes, cloud, smoke).

2 From the Latin cancelli, crossbars or lattice-work. Thus to cross out writing.

3 From the Latin trivium. Literally, a place where three ways meet, but the Trivium was the lower division - that is, grammar, rhetoric and logic - of the seven liberal arts. The word evolves through a sense of 'common', 'familiar' to 'unimportant'.