Friday, June 17, 2011

Language of Confusion: Solve

Absolute, resolute, dissolute, irresolute, resolution, irresolution, dissolution, absolution, dissolve, persolve, absolve, resolve, exsolve.

A solute is a substance dissolved in a solution. It’s basic chemistry. For example, lemonade mix is dissolved in water to make a lemonade drink. But if we stick some prefixes on there, suddenly we’re in a whole new arena. Absolve is usually a religious term. Resolve is making a vow. Is there a reason for this alteration?

You know there is.

Solve and solution are the root for all these words and they have slightly separate evolutionary lines. Solution came first in the fourteenth century the Old French solucion, which itself came from the classical Latin solutionem. It’s original meaning was “to loosen.” While that makes sense for its scientific meaning (which is a “loosening” of the particles), that particular meaning showed up in later, in the late sixteenth century! The “answer” sense of the word was what came first. Solve came along in the mid fifteenth century and while it initially meant“loosen” or “dissipate,” it quickly turned into “to answer.”

There’s a lot more to learn about the solve/solution family. Dissolve and dissolution first appeared in the late fourteenth century and are probably the closest to their original definitions. It’s from the Latin dissolvere/dissolutionem, which is made up of the prefix dis- (apart) and the above solvere, “to loosen.” All together, that vies us “to break apart.” At first, it only meant material substances, like breaking apart a sugar cube into individual grains. But it soon started applying to immaterial things like relationships or agreements.

Resolve and resolution are from the same period and yes, their origin words are the Latin resolvere and resolutionem. In this case, re- is used as an intensive, so this would be something like “to break into a lot of little parts.” In the sixteenth century, it started meaning determination. While there is no specific information on why this is, it’s worth noting that this is the same time period that solve became answer. With re- as an intensifier, it would mean to answer with complete certainty, to be sure, to be…determined.

The final words we’re looking at today is absolve and absolution. In fact, absolution is the oldest of all these words (even solve), first showing up in the twelfthcentury! Back then, it only referred to religious forgiveness. It became more general in the fifteenth century, about the same time the other solute words showed up. The two words, of course, come from absolvere and absolutionem. The ab- prefix means fromor away, which would make it “breaking apart from.” Except it doesn’t. Absolvere actually means “set free, loosen, acquit.” The set free part makes sense, in terms of forgiveness and the literal meaning of the word.

I think a lot of words evolve because related words have mutually exclusive synonyms. Absolve, for example, meant “break apart from.” After taking a cue from its cousin solve, it became less literal, which would make it a synonym for freedom, which is a synonym for acquittal, which is a synonym for forgiveness…get it? It’s like six degrees of separation, but with words.

Interesting, yes?

Thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which is an amazing source of etymological information.
And to, which confirmed that persolve and exsolve really are words. I'm just as surprised as you are.


  1. Absolution is the best solution of all. Thank you, Jesus.

  2. Absolution is something I'm keeping in mind for my coming chapter....

  3. I love the Online Etymology Dictionary. I actually own a hardcopy (remember those?) of the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. Not something many people admit (much less brag about!). Anyway, it was nice to see someone else linking to the former! :)

  4. Wow, how did I miss this post? So cool! And now I'm off to look up persolve and exsolve.


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