Just as resilience today bears multiple meanings and connotations in various discursive contexts, the term has multiple origins as well. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “resilience” comes from the post-classical Latin resililentia for the fact of avoiding. It also comes from the classical Latin resilient-, resiliens, present participle of resilire. This Latin verb (re- + salire “to leap”) has multiple definitions: (i) to leap or spring back, (ii) to rebound, (iii) to recoil, and (iv) to shrink from. Resilire retains much of its form in the English resile (of Middle French influence as well) and first appears in 1529 during the reign of Henry VIII.
The word resilience, however, makes its English language debut nearly a century later in Francis Bacon's Sylva Sylvarum (1627). The first entry in the OED's list of definitions for resilience, "the action or an act of rebounding or springing back; rebound, recoil," derives from Bacon's work. Francis Bacon was an English philosopher, statesman, jurist, orator, and author. He served both as Attorney General and as Lord Chancellor of England. He was influential as a philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the scientific revolution. Bacon is also called the “father of empiricism,” as he argued for the possibility of scientific knowledge based only upon inductive and careful observation of events in nature. Sylva Sylvarum; or, A Natural History was easily Bacon’s most widely read and influential book in the seventeenth century, as it went through ten editions since its first pressing until 1670. The following passage about echoes from Bacon’s book features the first use of resilience:
The Eccho cometh as the Original Sound doth in a round orb of Air: it were good to try the creating of the Eccho, where the Body repercussing maketh an Angle: As against the Return of a Wall, &c. Also we see that in Mirrors, there is the like Angle of Incidence, from the Object to the Glass, and from the Glass to the Eye. And if you strike a Ball side-long, not full upon the Surface, the rebound will be as much the contrary way; whether there be any such resilience in Eccho’s (that is, Whether a Man shall hear better, if he stand aside the Body repercussing, than if he stand where he speaketh, or any where in a right Line between) may be tried; Tryal like-wise would be made, by standing nearer the place of repercussing, than he that speaketh; and again, by standing further off, than he that speaketh, and so knowledge would be taken, whether Eccho’s, as well as Original Sounds, be not strong near hand. (§245)
In this passage, Bacon describes echoes as a “round orb of air” that bounces as a ball would upon being kicked against a wall. His use of resilience is synonymous with both rebounding and resonates with the dual definitions of the archaic repercussing: (i) the recoil of something after impact, and (ii) an echo or reverberation.
The second definition of resilience is associated with elasticity: “the power of resuming an original shape or position after compression, bending, etc.” According to the OED, the earliest use of resilience in this way is found in Thomas Young’s (1773-1829) A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts in 1807. He writes, “the resilience is jointly proportional to its strength and its toughness, and is measured by the product of the mass and the square of the velocity of a body capable of breaking it.” The OED entry does not provide enough context for one to be able to discern what “it” refers to in this passage, but other historical examples of resilience used this way describe such diverse things as lungs, iron ships, skin, rubber putty, and linen. This “mechanical” usage of resilience beginning with Young’s Lectures becomes quantifiable as “the energy unit volume absorbed by a material when it is subjected to strain; the value of this at the elastic limit.” Resilience as a unit of measurement is still used in engineering discourses.
The three remaining definitions for resilience refer to figurative uses of the term. First, we have “the action of going back upon one’s word” though it must be noted that the term is seldom—if never—used this way. The second figurative use of resilience is defined as “the act of revolting or recoiling from something” and/or “repugnance and antagonism.” There are negative connotations that are associated with this usage of resilience that resemble the earlier mentioned resile, and it must be noted that the term is rarely used this way anymore.
The third and final figurative use of resilience (again, according to the OED) is “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.” This usage first appears in a passage from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England in 1857: “in their struggles with the ponderous power of England [the Scotch] discovered an invincible vigour, not only of resistance, but of resilience.” This denotation for resilience continues to be used today in many contexts, especially in the field of Psychology.
Bacon’s ethos and his introductory use of the resilience resonates with us today, as his interest in measuring echoes by their strength and how far they can bounce corresponds with the way resilience is used in climate-related contexts—especially in the “bouncing forward” rather than “bouncing back” connotation that can be attributed to the term. Furthermore, one can infer that climate resilience incorporates both literal and figurative definitions of the term. Moreover, the more practical and mechanical uses of resilience as a quantifiable unit of measurement are appropriate in climate-contexts as well, especially with regards to engineering and infrastructure. The last mentioned figurative use of the term (adaptability and being able to recover from shocks and impacts) pertains to climate resilience as well, such as when one talks about “community resilience.” Finally, climate resilience can be both literal and figurative at the same time. For example, when The Rockefeller Foundation states that “resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of stress and shocks,” this definition includes the quantitative measures of resilience associated with engineering and the qualitative measure of individual and community growth and wellbeing.