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Mind your language

Why does everything suddenly need 'resilience'?

Schoolchildren, flood defences, press regulators... it's time to resile

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

They were talking on the wireless about Brazilians in the flooded areas, or so I thought. Once the kettle had finished boiling, it turned out that they wanted resilience in new houses in floody places. That meant fitting electrical sockets above waist height and not using plasterboard downstairs — things they have been doing in Venice for years.

Schoolchildren should have resilience too, according to the MP Tristram Hunt, who, I always have to remind myself, sits on the Labour benches. ‘The teaching of resilience and self-control and character is more and more important,’ he said a couple of weeks ago. You can’t have too much of it these days. The Observer pointed out that the advertisement for the head of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, and the one for the head of its lickspittle, political, royal-charter equivalent, both sought a person of resilience.


I had thought that this quality was the next best thing to robustness, which is what politicians always claim for the ramshackle systems they invent, such as the proposed self-leaking NHS database. Thus, if the flood defences prove insufficiently robust, it won’t matter as long as the flooded houses are resilient. But the definition offered by the OED for the current meaning of resilience is comprehensive enough to include robustness: ‘The quality or fact of being able to recover quickly or easily from, or resist being affected by, a misfortune, shock, illness, etc.; robustness; adaptability.’

Before these past few decades, the word retained more of the metaphorical bounciness its late Latin origin suggests. (In 1960, an elastic protein was named resilin.) Johannes Amos Comenius (1592–1670), who compiled an engaging Latin picture book, declared that ‘sight is the resiliencie [Latin: resilientia] of the light from the object to the eye’. There, the bounciness is what we call reflection. In the 1920s, Gandhi was praised for the resilience with which he ‘came back from his mourning and fasting more determined than ever’.

Etymologically resilience is connected to resiling, or ‘going back’. The quality of not resiling is nowadays equated with determination. So it is regarded as just as bad to resile as it is to lack resilience.


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