Words: Resolution

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WILLIAM EWART Gladstone's rather boring diaries come to life each New Year's Eve when he laments his misdeeds (which he keeps intriguingly vague) and hopes not to repeat them. The fact that such resolutions appear year after year suggests that he was no better at keeping them than the rest of us. Everyone knows about the frailty of resolutions. But the word 'resolution' has had a pretty slippery career itself. It has been, and still is, applied in so many situations, and in so many academic disciplines - maths, medicine, music, grammar, physics, engineering, logic (in each of which it means something different) - that it is a wonder, after so much pulling this way and that, that the word survives in any decent shape at all.

In the 14th century it could mean much the same as it did in Latin - 'dissolution' or the decay of the body in death; in the 15th, the return of a compound to its elementary parts. By the 16th it was used for the weakening of a bodily organ, but also for the solving of a doubt or difficulty - the definition that has fathered most of its unscientific meanings. Thus a resolution passed in conference or committee implies the settling of disagreements, rather in the same way that a resolution in music substitutes concord for discord, often at the end of a piece, giving a sense of troubles over: the performer looks back with a happy sense of relief, not at all like the contrition that afflicted Gladstone at the year's end.

In the abstract, 'resolution' is a fine thing. Resolute persons are not to be doubted. It is only when they say they have 'made a resolution' that you begin to question them. It may have been this slight ambivalence that led to the invention of the word 'resoluteness', which dates from as long ago as the 16th century. One doesn't hear or see it often - perhaps because it is such a clumsy word. But one can see why people thought they needed it. 'Resolution' has too many burdens to carry, particularly at this time of year.