Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

You Say You Want a Resolution?

January is a month when the word resolution comes into focus. It's a busy word in English, with several senses that are usually obvious to the reader in context. If nearby words are conflict or dispute, the sense is close to that of the underlying word solution. If nearby words are screen or pixel, resolution refers to the sharpness of an image relative to a scale. If a legislative body is somewhere in the picture, resolution may refer to a formal expression of opinion by that group. This short listing doesn't take into account specialized meanings in music (progress from dissonance to consonance), chemistry (separation of a compound into optically active elements) or medicine (the diminution of inflammation without suppuration).

And then there is the New Year's Resolution, and January is the time of year when people of a certain type "make" New Year's Resolutions. What type is that? At the very least, you look for a resolution-maker to be resolute—that just makes etymological sense. It's also likely that a resolution-maker has at least a modicum of humility because resolutions nearly always have some self-improving goal in view, and that way of thinking suggests that you don't consider yourself to be perfect—yet. A third, very likely characteristic of the resolution-maker is that he or she is an English speaker. Though it may be hard to believe, New Year's Resolutions are largely unknown in many parts of the world and people outside the Anglosphere have done without them all these years.

Who came up with the idea of a New Year's Resolution? While analogous traditions are found in several cultures (the English wikipedia article on New Year's Resolutions will tell you that), it's curious to note that said article about New Year's Resolutions appears in only ten languages (counting English) on Wikipedia; that's a rather poor showing, and half of these articles are only stubs, having borrowed the essential factoids from the English article. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that more than half of these articles are illustrated with an early 20th century American graphic exemplifying New Year's Resolutions:

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Oxford English Dictionary's first citation for New Year's Resolution is American, from 1850. More than half of the OED's cites for the term are American, leading you to think that the tradition, in addition to being an Anglophone one, is mainly an American one. This makes intuitive sense, Americans being the relentless self-improvers that they are, and a bit of poking around in Google Books suggests that the term and the practice associated with it has far more purchase in the United States than elsewhere. Brits seemed to flirt with the New Year's Resolutions in the late 20th century but by the late 1980s, if the print record is any indication, they went off the practice, and it may be that now they hardly bother:

But just what is involved when you "make" a resolution? I put make in scare quotes at the beginning of the article and I do it again here for a reason: a very peculiar thing about these resolutions is that most people do not actually make them. They simply report that they made them, or that they have them.

How would you go about making a resolution? Properly speaking, a resolution is a performative utterance, an example of a thing where saying it is so makes it so. The act performed in a performative utterance comes into existence when the words proclaiming it issue from the lips of the maker. Examples of performative utterances are "I now pronounce you man and wife," "I reject your proposal," "I swear that I never had sushi with that woman." A feature of performative utterances is that you can always insert a "now" or "hereby" into them before the performative verb without changing the sense.

So a proper New Year's Resolution would consist of your saying: "I (hereby) resolve to..." or "I now resolve that I will..." where you replace the dots with the grand or modest accomplishment that you have envisioned for yourself. Have you ever done that? Probably not; it's more likely that you reported to someone, perhaps even to a roomful of people at a cocktail party, that you made a New Year's Resolution. But did you in fact make it, or did you just say that you did? Or you may report that you have a New Year's Resolution. How did you come to acquire it? Probably not by any other act than your saying it is in your possession.

What is the success rate of these resolutions that accrue to their owners rather mysteriously by a simple report of their presence? Anyone who belongs to a gym or recreation center can attest to the mad crowds that appear in January, consisting largely of faces never before seen. Typically this rush to fitness is over by February. From this it would be reasonable to conclude that a resolution is an easy-come, easy-go possession, almost like a fashion accessory that is sported at the beginning of the year to signify one's awareness of social expectations.

Only a martinet would suggest that the contemporary, rather loosey-goosey way in which people treat New Year's Resolutions is inadequate and should be replaced by a formal ceremony where people genuinely make resolutions. I have personally resolved this year to rein in my martinet tendencies, so I'm not going to suggest this, but it would be an interesting social experiment to bring the language surrounding New Year's Resolutions more into line with the meaning of resolution (e.g., the act of resolving—that is to say, the act of declaring a firm intention to act). If we set aside a time on New Year's Day to declare our resolutions by saying "I hereby resolve..." would their record of success turn out to be more admirable?

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.