What is the definition of RISK?

The word risk is a common English word with a definition that has been well established for hundreds of years.  There is no need for risk managers to redefine the word to mean something else.  In fact, redefining a word so that its meaning would incorporate the exact opposite of the common definition is a precess that George Orwell called DOUBLETHINK.

Imagine what you would think if you hired someone to paint your house and when they showed up they told you that in their minds the word “paint” meant repaving your driveway in addition to applying a colored covering to your house?  Sounds crazy doesn’t it.  But there are many, many risk managers who will heatedly argue about this point.  For example, see The ISO 31000 group discussion here.

The Definition of risk


a situation involving exposure to danger:flouting the law was too much of a risk all outdoor activities carry an element of risk

[in singular] the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen:reduce the risk of heart disease [as modifier]:a high consumption of caffeine was suggested as a risk factor for loss of bone mass

[usually in singular with adjective] a person or thing regarded as likely to turn out well or badly, as specified, in a particular context or respect:Western banks regarded Romania as a good risk

[with adjective] a person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger:she’s a security risk gloss paint can burn strongly and pose a fire risk

(usually risks) a possibility of harm or damage against which something is insured.

the possibility of financial loss: [as modifier]:project finance is essentially an exercise in risk management


[with object]

expose (someone or something valued) to danger, harm, or loss:he risked his life to save his dog

act or fail to act in such a way as to bring about the possibility of (an unpleasant or unwelcome event):unless you’re dealing with pure alcohol you’re risking contamination from benzene

incur the chance of unfortunate consequences by engaging in (an action):he was far too intelligent to risk attempting to deceive her


at risk

exposed to harm or danger:23 million people in Africa are at risk from starvation

at one’s (own) risk

used to indicate that if harm befalls a person or their possessions through their actions, it is their own responsibility:they undertook the adventure at their own risk

at the risk of doing something

although there is the possibility of something unpleasant resulting:at the risk of boring people to tears, I repeat the most important rule in painting

at risk to oneself (or something)

with the possibility of endangering oneself or something:he visited prisons at considerable risk to his health

risk one’s neck

put one’s life in danger.

run the risk (or run risks)

expose oneself to the possibility of something unpleasant occurring:she preferred not to run the risk of encountering his sister


mid 17th century: from French risque (noun), risquer (verb), from Italian risco ‘danger’ and rischiare ‘run into danger’

from Oxford dictionary of American English

Redefining the word risk to include its opposite (i.e. gain) is a perfect example of what Orwell called DOUBLETHINK.

DOUBLETHINK:  The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.  From 1984 George Orwell (1949)

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2 Comments on “What is the definition of RISK?”

  1. Alvin Soh Says:

    Risk is deviation from expectation.

    • riskviews Says:

      I have to say that I disagree with that statement in two ways. First, risk only deals with potential. The actual deviation itself is a realized gain or a loss in financial terms (or something else if the expectation is not about money). Second, in the English language, as noted above, risk has the connotation of “potential for unfavorable deviations from expectation”.

      But to be clearer, risk management often (but not always) involves the consideration of both opportunities (potential for favorable deviations from expectation) and risks (potential for unfavorable deviations from expectation).

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