Wednesday 2 January 2013


It is a source of constant New Year's shame to me that my computer screen has more resolution than I do. Mysteries are more often resolved than I am.

If you solve something, you get a solution. That's because of the Latin word solvere, which meant to loosen or dissolve. So, if you have a knotty mathematical problem, you loosen it - or solve it - and thus get the solution. If you put a sugar lump in hot water it dissolves and you are left with a solution containing sugar.

Re- usually means to do something again, but it can just be an intensive prefix, a bit like super-. Thus, resolution arrived in the English language as a chemical term meaning:

The reduction or separation of an object or substance into constituent parts or elements; decomposition, disintegration, dispersion. Formerly also: †a material result of this, spec. a smoke or vapour (obs.). Now rare. [OED]

Now, imagine looking at a distant nebula or galaxy. To the nude eye, the Milky Way looks rather like a milky way running across the night sky. But if you look at it with a telescope this long smudge is broken up into lots of little stars. It is, like a chemical, resolved. The telescope thus gives you a resolution. And better telescopes have higher resolutions. Similarly, your digital camera breaks up, or resolves, a picture into lots of little pixels. The number of pixels representing the resolution.

But the New Year's resolution? Well, that seems to come from the idea of resolving a mystery. Once you've broken something down into its parts, resolution has been achieved. Thus you might resolve a mathematical puzzle. This transfers easily to the idea that your doubts and confusions have been resolved. This transfers nicely to the idea that you are no longer baffled and have now made a decision. You are resolute. You have (and the dread phrase isn't recorded until 1850) a New Year's resolution.

Mine is to be dissolute.


  1. I always knew there were constituent parts or elements to my Resolutions (thank you btw for the true definition), which is why I always failed in achieving them!

    I don't do them anymore; like you I prefer to be dissolute.


  2. Are you saying resolution is an example of re- being used as an intensifier?

    In chemistry, resolving a solution is the opposite of dissolving. First you solve/dissolve the sugar, creating a solution, then you REsolve it, separating or distinguishing the liquid from the particles suspended in it - i.e. making it no longer a solution.

  3. In terms of the Latin root, both are loosenings. First, you loosen the solid of the cube. Then you would separate the liquid. Both are, if you see what I mean, dispersals.
    Mind you, resolution has an awful lot of different chemical definitions in the OED. I was quoting from the first. It also has re-solution which is 'dissolving again' and uses the re- in its purely iterative sense.

  4. Any ideas how I might resolve my insolvency? The solution seems to be clear to me but that may just be my new year resolution which did not prove to be a solution last year so I must resolve the problem. Actually a cup of tea, with the sugar dissolved, may be the solution I am looking for. Happy New Year.