Word Games: Resign

They dropped like proverbial flies. The Prime Minister's director of communications, Andy Coulson, the shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, and the lesser-known chief executive of Northern Ireland Water, Laurence MacKenzie, all resigned in quick succession. And what an array of reasons they proffered. Coulson because "When the spokesman needs a spokesman, it's time to move on", as he put it, cutting a rather longer story short; Johnson playing the age-old "personal issues" card; and MacKenzie because half of Northern Ireland's pipes burst and 40,000 people were without water supply. Oops.

Perhaps it's catching. One person jumps, and the others follow. But resignations in public life are more pushes than jumps. I don't think Coulson handed his letter to Cameron, pale hands shaking, because he felt he'd got a bit stuck in a rut and wanted to jack it in and find himself in India. (What a thought: Coulson, draped in beads, lording it up in Goa; Rebekah Brooks in the next-door beach hut on a silent meditation retreat; Rupert Murdoch, the cross-legged guru, doling out aphorisms and vegetarian curry at the bar.) No, Coulson didn't have much choice.

Resign comes from resignare (Latin: "to check off, cancel, give up"). Divide up the word and you have re, meaning opposite, and signare, literally "to make an entry in an account book" - so the opposite entry cancels out the original one. To resign isn't just a removal, then - it alters the whole balance of things. Take Johnson: now he's out and Balls is in, the Labour account book is all aquiver. On the plus side, the figures might start to add up (or Balls will at least know what on earth to do with them).

The word has another use - you can resign yourself to a situation. It's not so far from the original meaning: you're simply giving up yourself, rather than a position. That can sound defeatist, but a bit more resignation all round wouldn't go amiss. The admission that we're not all-powerful is humbling. So, Coulson, it's time to resign yourself to a life spent hoping people will forget about phone-hacking. Maybe India's not such a bad idea after all.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman