The origins of the word Risk (etymology)

At the day of the presentation of Ulrich Beck at the Universidad Diego Portales in Chile, I did a little research about the etymology roots of the word Risk. I did it because I was intrigued about the theory of Risk Society developed by Beck and Anthony Giddens in 1980s and which was so popular during 1990s in part because the rise of environmental movements. Due to the word Risk is so common among our daily lexicon I wondered about the origins and the implications that those roots had on the development of the concept. Here some of my findings:

Most of dictionaries assert that the English word risk, but also the words risicoriscorischio (in Italian), riesgo (in Spanish), risque (in French) and risco (in Portuguese), derived from the Latin words resicumrisicum and riscus which mean cliff or reef. Likewise, Latin word comes from a Greek navigation term rhizikon, rhiza which meant “root, stone, cut of the firm land” and was a metaphor for “difficulty to avoid in the sea” (Riskology 2012). According to Omer Ertekin (2010), from the 16th century on, the term got a benefit meaning, for example in middle-high-German in 1507 the word Rysigo was technical term for business, with the meaning: “To dare, to undertake, enterprise, hope for economic success”. The Chinese added the notion of “opportunity”. Indeed, the word for risk in Chinese is constructed from two symbols. “Danger” and “Opportunity” (see Figure 1) (although this can also be contested) which is more in line with our modern understanding of risk assessment: “Identification and evaluation of dangers that could prevent us to reach our objectives” (Bernstein 1998).


In addition, Ertekin (2010) asserts that it mostly possible that the term rhizikon, rhiza transferred to the Arabic world via Mediterranean as “Rizk” meaning, “everything given by God for livelihood”. In this meaning, risk cannot be totally controlled by mankind and man can only work for it and wait/expect for the good results.

Finally, if the starting-point of the term Risk places in the word rhizikon, rhiza, which mean in English rizhome, it would be unavoidable to ask about the etymology of this term. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (2013), the term rizhome dates from 1832 from the Greek rhizoma “mass of tree roots,” from rhizoun “cause to strike root,” from rhiza“root,” probably from PIE *wrad– “branch, root” (cf. Latin radix “root”, Old Norse rot “root”, Old English wyrt “plant, herb;” see radish). By the way, do you know there is a Think tank group called “Radix” (Home for Radical Interpretations of Disasters and Radical Solutions)?, is there a connection?

By Vicente Sandoval

(*) Words beginning with an asterisk are not attested in any written source, but they have been reconstructed by etymological analysis, such as Indo-European *ped-, the root of words for “foot” in most of its daughter tongues.

(PIE) Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical reconstructed ancestral language of the Indo-European family. The time scale is much debated, but the most recent date proposed for it is about 5,500 years ago.

The origins of the word Risk (etymology)

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