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Etymology: the word risk, where does it come from?

The editor-in-chief thought it was time for an etymological text. This time more about the word ‘risk’. With the etymology of that word we run some risk of damage ourselves. According to official sources, the origin of the word is a shadowy area from about the year 1250. We therefore carefully go back in time.

The word risk

We find an authentic use of the word risk in a book from 1634. But the word is much older. Eventually you will come to sources where you have the chance of errors. Odds and mistakes, we know that as a gambler, mean a risk.

Italy expert José de Bruijn-van der Helm writes a master’s thesis on Italian trade terms in 1992. In it she reports a use of the word risk in 1525. We have not bothered to check it.

Because the Italian linguist Carlo Battisti found an even earlier version. He discovers the word risk in a work from the 14th century. There it is already spelled as ‘risk’. An even earlier version, however, comes from Charles du Fresne, also called Monsieur du Cange. He writes, we read in some etymology sources, about the word risk in his explanatory dictionaries.

Charles du Fresne

According to etymologists he mentions the use of the medieval Latin resicum and riskum from around 1260. We have included the book by Charles du Fresne. Unfortunately, we cannot get hold of the book published during his lifetime in 1678. According to the publisher it will be an unaltered re-edition from 1739 and some later editions.

Now we come to our next risk. In the first reissue, no lemma (keyword) around the word risk refers to years. In any case, not a date from before 1300. In a later reissue, for example the one from 1850, it does.

Risk – Rischium

But in 1850 the publisher suddenly added the entry Rischium . That is no problem and announced on the cover, it is a re-release with additions. At Rischium, dates from before 1300 are mentioned.

In 1288 there appears to have been a Latin text in which some form of the word risk appeared. This is discovered by the Italian historian LA Muratori (1672-1750). That text boiled down to:… go to Sienna and leave at your own expense at the risk of losing fortune and goods.

The same entry even contains a quote from 1267. So we suspect that the etymologists, those who look for the origin of words, refer to a reissue. Charles du Fresne himself has never seen the interesting additions . Nice that they still give him the credits. What is also nice, in the addition are the words rischio and risque . These are the words respectively used in Italy and France for the word risk.

Uncertainty and the word risk

The European etymology banks report that the origin of the word risk is uncertain for 1267. They come with numerous suggestions and probabilities. There are references to risks in shipping, which we wrote about in the article about Dutch Book in gambling . Other suggestions come from national and vernacular languages ​​and dialects.

The word risk could then come from popular Latin ( resecum = cliff, steep rock = danger), classical Latin ( resecare = cut off = danger) and Spanish ( risk, which also means cliff.) There are more words that like word and meaning resemble the current risk, such as the old-southern French rezeque . This refers to the danger of damage to or loss of ship’s cargoes. Often Arabic and Greek words are also added. They almost always refer to the danger of a cliff or high mountain.

Notarial deed

Apart from better guesswork after 1267, however, an older source has been found. In the archives of notary Giovanni Scriba, who lived in Genoa in the 12th century, historians found several documents referring to risk. Scriba was a notary in Genoa. In April 1156 he used the word resicum in a legal text and later in some commercial agreements the word risk .

Four years after Scriba, the word is in a shipping law in Pisa. In both Scriba and Pisa it refers to the risk of a financier in commercial activities related to shipping.

A later found contract from 1893 concerns a fictitious sale of land as collateral for a loan. In the agreement, a notary states that the risk ( ad resicu ) of loss is divided between both parties.

Spoken language

For Scriba, the meaning of the word risk naturally also occurs. In the spoken language of areas and even urban neighborhoods, the pronunciation of a word differs. When recording on paper, people often record phonetically. As a result, there are several spellings of the word risk in the beginning.

Scriba is undoubtedly not the first to write about risk. But previous documents have not been preserved or have not yet been found. So he uses resicum. Forty years later we see resicu. However, there are several other spellings at the time. But this always concerns what we now understand by risk.


But what do we actually mean by risk, what is the definition. Several scientific disciplines have considered this. Philosophers, historians, actuaries and others, they all define it from their own background.

It is interesting that historians note that several forms of the word risk are known, for example as far back as the Middle Ages. But people hardly used the word at the time. They describe a dangerous situation. According to historians, this has an ecclesiastical reason. Spiritualists find talking and playing with uncertainty like making an appointment with the devil. That is why gambling is not allowed, for example.

Obviously, there are also historians who disagree with this. They point to the brisk trade at the time. And it was certainly not without dangers. It was good to make agreements about the risks and to use a word. Others are looking for a middle ground. According to them, the word risk was used in trading and talked about it was allowed. But not in civil relations.


A generally accepted definition of risk is ‘being or being placed in a situation with the potential for a bad outcome’. Philosophers say that death is the worst outcome. That is universally accepted. For the rest, a bad outcome is subjective. It depends on how someone pre-assesses a situation.

If you go to a movie, one might think: if it’s a bad movie, I run the risk of boredom. Someone else may think: if it’s a bad movie, I run the risk of wasted time. And what one person thinks is a bad outcome may be a favorable outcome for another.

Even gamblers can look at risk differently, for example, one only looks at the money he loses if he loses, while another enjoys the game regardless of the outcome. For example, an evening at (online) casino , even if things are not going well that evening, can still be very successful.

More casino etymology

Curious about the origin of other words from the gambling industry? Read here about the origin of the word gambling , or the word casino . Here you can view all etymology blogs .

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