Q&A: “Resolution” vs “solution”

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're talking 'bout a resolution…

Q: Hi AWC, can you tell me about New Year’s resolutions?

A: They’re goals often relating to eating less chocolate or about introducing yourself to that dusty cross trainer in the corner of the living room that you’ve been using as a clothes rack. 

Q: Haha. No, I actually meant the word itself – what are its origins? And is it related to “solution”?

A: Ah, okay. The idea of making a new year goal is very old – with History.com suggesting it was the Babylonians some 4000 years ago that were the first to make them. 

Q: I’ll bet theirs included spending less time on social stone tablets and drinking less ambrosia?

A: Haha, actually more likely to have been about their pagan gods not destroying crops. More recently, from the 1700s, Christians spent the first day of a new year thinking about one’s past mistakes and ‘resolving’ to do and be better in the future. Other religions had similar celebrations although these days making resolutions is typically a non-religious practice.

Q: And the word itself?

A: “Resolution” came to English in the late 1300s via Old French and Latin with the meaning of “reducing things into simpler forms”. By the 1540s, it came to be linked to solving something, as in finding a ‘solution’. It also meant “holding firmly” – which is where ‘resolute’ comes from.

Q: Still no sign of giving up smoking or 20 sit ups a day though…

A: No, the new year goal meaning didn’t take off until those religions started doing their thing. It was first recorded from around the 1780s. 

Q: I just realised how many meanings there are for “resolution” – for example, image sharpness?

A: Yes, relating to an object’s optical properties arrived about 1860. And more recently in relation to image fineness on screen and in printing – e.g. “an image with a resolution of 300dpi”.

Q: So “resolution” is not a repeat of a “solution”?

A: No. Unlike “read/reread” or “schedule/reschedule” there is no hint of repetition here. 

Q: But “to reach a resolution” and “to reach a solution” are similar though, right?

A: They’re definitely related. Once you solve something, it can also be said to have been “resolved” and arriving at a resolution. A “resolution” is usually more all encompassing – and can be the result of implementing a “solution”. 

Q: And plenty of meanings have nothing to do with “solution”?

A: Absolutely. English has this word doing overtime. A “resolution” can mean a formal declaration or simply an intention to do something (e.g. “we resolved to sleep on the matter and discuss it again in the morning”) unrelated to finding a solution or answer. It wears many hats.

Q: My uncle Charlie wears many hats.

A: Wait! Don’t tell us. He owns a hat shop? He has three heads? 

Q: Um, no. He just likes hats…

A: Oh, okay. What a fun story.

Q: Anyway, a “solution” can also be a liquid, right?

A: Yes, the meaning relating to a liquid containing a dissolved substance comes from the 1590s. This is similar to the original “resolution” meaning, which is obsolete these days.

Q: So in summary, a “resolution” can be an outcome, formal declaration, image sharpness or a statement of intent… to name a few.

A: That’s right – with the last one relating to New Year’s goals. 

Q: And the difference between “solution” and “resolution” summed up in 14 words or fewer?

A: A “solution” is the answer. A “resolution” is the entire process of solving something. 

Q: My resolution for this year is to finally figure out a method to the English language’s madness.

A: Good luck with that one. However, we suspect that you may end up with the 92% of people who never stick to their resolutions!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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