Risk - Historical Background

Historical Background

The Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest use of the word in English (in the spelling of risque) as from 1621, and the spelling as risk from 1655. It defines risk as:

(Exposure to) the possibility of loss, injury, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance; a chance or situation involving such a possibility.

For the sociologist Niklas Luhmann the term 'risk' is a neologism that appeared with the transition from traditional to modern society. "In the Middle Ages the term risicum was used in highly specific contexts, above all sea trade and its ensuing legal problems of loss and damage." In the vernacular languages of the 16th century the words rischio and riezgo were used. This was introduced to continental Europe, through interaction with Middle Eastern and North African Arab traders. In the English language the term risk appeared only in the 17th century, and "seems to be imported from continental Europe." When the terminology of risk took ground, it replaced the older notion that thought "in terms of good and bad fortune." Niklas Luhmann (1996) seeks to explain this transition: "Perhaps, this was simply a loss of plausibility of the old rhetorics of Fortuna as an allegorical figure of religious content and of prudentia as a (noble) virtue in the emerging commercial society."

Scenario analysis matured during Cold War confrontations between major powers, notably the United States and the Soviet Union. It became widespread in insurance circles in the 1970s when major oil tanker disasters forced a more comprehensive foresight. The scientific approach to risk entered finance in the 1960s with the advent of the capital asset pricing model and became increasingly important in the 1980s when financial derivatives proliferated. It reached general professions in the 1990s when the power of personal computing allowed for widespread data collection and numbers crunching.

Governments are using it, for example, to set standards for environmental regulation, e.g. "pathway analysis" as practiced by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

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