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Risk Analysis, Vol. 32, No. 2, 2012 DOI: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01668.

The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger”:

A Linguistic Analysis

Max Boholm∗

The analysis combines frame semantic and corpus linguistic approaches in analyzing the role
of agency and decision making in the semantics of the words “risk” and “danger” (both nom-
inal and verbal uses). In frame semantics, the meanings of “risk” and of related words, such
as “danger,” are analyzed against the background of a specific cognitive-semantic structure
(a frame) comprising frame elements such as Protagonist, Bad Outcome, Decision, Posses-
sion, and Source. Empirical data derive from the British National Corpus (100 million words).
Results indicate both similarities and differences in use. First, both “risk” and “danger” are
commonly used to represent situations having potential negative consequences as the result
of agency. Second, “risk” and “danger,” especially their verbal uses (to risk, to endanger),
differ in agent-victim structure, i.e., “risk” is used to express that a person affected by an ac-
tion is also the agent of the action, while “endanger” is used to express that the one affected
is not the agent. Third, “risk,” but not “danger,” tends to be used to represent rational and
goal-directed action. The results therefore to some extent confirm the analysis of “risk” and
“danger” suggested by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. As a point of discussion, the
present findings arguably have implications for risk communication.

KEY WORDS: Agency; corpus linguistics; danger; risk; semantics

1. INTRODUCTION Luhmann.(12−14) Luhmann argues that “risk” refers

to potential future loss as a consequence of a de-
In risk research, the meaning of the word
cision. He suggests that decision making is an es-
“risk”—the concept of risk—and how its meaning
sential semantic component of the concept of risk:
is related to that of other words such as “danger,”
“we can speak of risk only if we can identify a deci-
“hazard,” “safety,” and “uncertainty” has been a
sion without which the loss could not have occurred”
longstanding subject of study.(1−10) One of the more
(p. 16).(12) Furthermore, according to Luhmann, this
original suggestions concerning the meaning of
element of decision making distinguishes the mean-
“risk” and how it differs semantically from “dan-
ing of “risk” from that of “danger”; danger is not con-
ger”1 is proposed by the German sociologist Niklas
ceived to be the result of a decision, but rather as a
potential loss resulting from something “external” to
∗ Address correspondence to Max Boholm, Center for Public Sec- the one affected.
tor Research, University of Gothenburg, P.O. Box 720, SE-40530
Göteborg, Sweden;
1 Luhmann originally wrote in German,(11) so he discussed the cal question in its own right, as is the relationship between the
German words “Risiko” and “Gefahr,” translated as “risk” and German words “Risiko” and “Gefahr” and the English words
“danger.”(12) When writing in English, Luhmann himself used “risk,” “danger,” and “hazard.” Some authors consider “danger”
the words “risk” and “danger.”(13,14) To what extent Luhmann’s to be synonymous with “hazard.”(5,8,15) English written literature
distinction between “risk” and “danger” equals the often dis- referring to Luhmann, however, often refers to a distinction be-
cussed distinction between “risk” and “hazard”(3,6) is an empiri- tween “risk” and “danger,” not “risk” and “hazard.”(16,17)

281 0272-4332/12/0100-0281$22.00/1 
C 2011 Society for Risk Analysis
282 Boholm

The potential loss is either regarded as a consequence The idea that there are conceptual/semantic con-
of the decision, that is to say, it is attributed to the deci- nections between risk, agency, and decisions is not
sion. We then speak of risk—to be more exact of the risk
unique to Luhmann, but has been suggested else-
of decision. Or the possible loss is considered to have
been caused externally, that is to say, it is attributed
where in risk research, although perhaps not as ex-
to the environment. In this case we speak of danger. plicitly.(7,16−21)
(pp. 21–22)(12) Luhmann’s semantic analysis of “risk” and “dan-
Luhmann, furthermore, finds this distinction ger,” like many other semantic assumptions about
based on decision making to be clear-cut. the core concepts of risk research, is based on in-
tuitive judgments and stipulated definitions, rather
The concept of risk is, however, clearly distinguished
than on empirical studies of ordinary language
from the concept of danger, that is to say, from the case
where future losses are seen not at all as the conse- use.(20,22) This is indeed, since antiquity, the classi-
quences of a decision that has been made, but are at- cal way of doing conceptual analysis, but a growing
tributed to an external factor. (pp. 101–1102)(12) trend in linguistics in recent years is to use corpus
The quotation indicates that Luhmann assumes data on natural language use to assist semantic anal-
that decision making plays the role of a contrastive yses.(23−28) The corpus linguistics tradition contains
semantic component between “risk” and “danger.” some ground-breaking systematic empirical analy-
However, it should be noted that Luhmann con- ses of the semantics of “risk”;(22,29−36) in consonance
structs a dichotomy out of effects of decisions, on with Luhmann,(12) those studies that use the theoret-
one hand, and the effects of external factors, on the ical perspective of frame semantics have concluded
other, and that he takes the former to be essential to that elements of decision making and agency are in-
the semantics of “risk” and the latter to that of “dan- deed relevant to the semantics of “risk.”(29−31,34)
ger.” Since it is possible that the external factor is in- The determination of word meaning, from a
deed a decision—Luhmann indeed recognizes this— frame semantic viewpoint, is an interactive process
a more precise formulation of his position would in between describing the conceptual structure that un-
fact entail two dichotomies: the dichotomy between derlies the word under examination, i.e., its frame,
decision and no decision, and the dichotomy between and examining how this structure is realized in lan-
internal and external causes of potential loss. That guage use, for example, the linguistic structures
Luhmann’s distinction is based on two dichotomies that surround the word. More specifically, a seman-
rather than one, however, is not always clear, and he tic frame consists of frame elements and certain
repeatedly assumes decision making to be the cen- relationships between the elements. According to
tral criterion for distinguishing the meaning of “risk” Fillmore and Atkins, the frame underlying the lex-
from that of “danger” (see, e.g., the last quotation eme RISK (including both noun and verb), i.e., the
above). Luhmann’s idea concerning the meaning of Risk Frame, consist of the following frame elements
“risk” in relation to “danger” can be summarized as and relationships between them:(30)
follows: while both words share the semantic element
of potential loss, “risk” refers to potential loss to • Protagonist: the central person in the frame
someone as a consequence of his/her decision (inter- • Bad Outcome: the possible bad outcome, or
nal), while “danger” refers to potential loss to some- harm
one not incurred by a decision, at least not by a deci- • Decision: the decision that could trigger this
sion by the one affected him/herself (i.e., the victim), • Goal: the desired outcome
but by some external cause beyond the victim’s con- • Setting: the situation in which the risk exists
trol.2 • Possession: something or someone valued by
the protagonist and endangered in the situa-
2 Luhmann adds that “speaking of risk,” rather than of danger, or tion
vice versa, is a matter of perspective taking. One and the same sit- • Source: something or someone that could
uation can be described, or framed, in terms of “risk,” which, ac- cause the harm
cording to Luhmann, implies that the potential loss is incurred by
a decision; in terms of “danger” there is no such decision, the po-
tential loss being incurred by an external factor (possibly another chosen alternative may result in some future loss. In Luhmann’s
person’s decision) beyond the affected person’s control. Funda- terms, a situation in which someone is potentially affected by the
mental to the concept of risk is “multiple contingency.” First, the decision of some other agent is not a situation of multiple contin-
contingency involved in a situation of decision making: a choice gency for the one affected and therefore not referred to by “risk”
of doing action A rather than some alternative to A; second, the but rather by “danger.”
The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger” 283

Elsewhere, Fillmore and Atkins(31) suggest a effects.4 However, the two theoretical accounts dif-
longer list of elements, while Fillmore(29) suggests a fer in two significant ways. First, for Fillmore and
shorter one.3 In addition, the names of the elements Atkins(30,31) the element Decision is part of the Risk
differ somewhat in their work; for example, the ele- Frame, which structures the meaning of RISK, but
ment “Decision” in the above list(30) is also referred particular uses of the lexeme do not necessarily have
to as “Deed”(29,31) and “Action.”(34) In essence, how- to specify this element, for example, (1–3) above, or
ever, the elements suggested are very similar; for ex- even not make it implicitly relevant to interpretation,
ample, “Deed” is defined in a way similar to “Deci- as in the sentence “babies ran the risk of hypother-
sion” as “the act that brings about a risky situation” mia there” (p. 367).(30) Luhmann’s position postu-
(p. 83).(31) Common to Decision and Deed, as these lates that decision making is an essential component
are defined, is that agency of some form (i.e., act or of the concept of risk, and if this element is absent it is
decision) is the cause of a potential bad outcome. a case not of risk but of danger. Second, Fillmore and
All of the elements of a frame can be linguisti- Atkins do not hold,(30,31) as Luhmann does, that the
cally realized in language use by surrounding words concept of risk is clearly separate from that of danger
and grammatical structures. However, in a particu- in terms of agency.
lar use of a word, elements of the associated frame
are selected, and only these are focused on and spec-
2. AIM
ified in that particular instance.(30,31,37) The following
examples (1–4), taken from Fillmore and Atkins,(30) This study, following the recommendations of
can be used to illustrate how different elements of Hamilton et al.(22) and Zinn,(20) aims to analyze more
the Risk Frame can be focused on in different ways closely the concepts of risk and danger using an
(note that they analyze RISK as both a verb and a empirical corpus linguistic approach. Specifically, it
noun against the same frame). addresses the question of how agency and decision
making are relevant to how these notions are concep-
(1) “He risked falling down” tualized. In addressing this issue of the conceptual re-
(2) “He ran the risk of falling down” lations between agency, risk, and danger, we will take
(3) “He risked his life” Luhmann’s distinction between “risk” and “danger”
(4) “He risked climbing the mountain” as a point of departure. If Luhmann’s ideas are rele-
vant to ordinary language use, we would expect the
In all four examples (1–4), the pronoun “he” oc- concepts of decision making and agency, by which
cupies the functional role of subject and instantiates “risk” and “danger” are supposedly distinguished, to
the Protagonist of the situation. Furthermore, Bad be reflected in the natural use of these words. Ac-
Outcome is realized by “falling down” in (1) and (2), cordingly, the following three hypotheses concerning
Possession by “his life” in (3), and Decision (else- natural language use will be tested:
where Deed or Action) by “climbing the mountain”
in (4). Although the same elements are realized in (1) • First, we would expect the strong conceptual
and (2), namely, Protagonist and Bad Outcome, the connection between decision making and risk,
latter element (Bad Outcome) is realized in slightly on one hand, and the weak conceptual con-
different ways. In (1), Bad Outcome is realized as the nection between danger and decision making,
object of the verb RISK, while in (2) the same element on the other, to be reflected in the colloca-
is realized as a complement of the noun RISK, in turn tional behavior of “risk” and “danger.”(23,27)
occupying the functional role of object of the verb If Luhmann’s idea is relevant to natural lan-
RUN . guage use, “risk” should commonly co-occur
The theoretical ideas of Luhmann(12) are strik- with words referring to decision making and
ingly similar in some respects to those of Fillmore choice, and this tendency should be stronger
and Atkins,(30,31) since both take decision mak- for “risk” than for “danger.”
ing and agency to be key aspects of the meaning • Second, if Luhmann’s analysis has any bearing
of “risk,” as being causes of potential adverse on how we actually use these words, we would
4 There are also similarities to other theoretical accounts of risk.
3 Seealso FrameNet, which is a database of semantic frames de- For example, the elements of Possession and Source are very sim-
veloped by Charles J. Fillmore and colleges; http://framenet.icsi. ilar to the related Object at Risk and Risk Object in the work of, last retrieved November 20, 2010. Hilgartner,(38) Boholm and Corvellec,(39) and Garland.(8)
284 Boholm

expect the elements of the Risk Frame associ- from the British National Corpus, distributed by
ated with decision and agency, namely, Deci- Oxford University Computing Services on behalf of
sion and Goal, to be realized with “risk” to a the BNC Consortium. All rights in the texts cited are
greater extent than with “danger.” reserved. See Ref. 42 for more details of BNC.
• Third, in relation to Luhmann’s idea that “dan- Before presenting details on the methodological
ger” refers to potential loss as a result of an ex- procedure, some notes on the notation used hence-
ternal factor, we would expect the element of forth are necessary. Word forms, including exem-
Source to be more commonly realized in con- plified linguistic material, are indicated by quota-
texts of “danger” than in contexts of “risk.” tion marks, for example, “risk,” “risks,” “danger,”
“dangers,” and “there is a risk.” Small capital letters
It should be noted that Luhmann does not make throughout a term are used to represent lexemes (or
any explicit claim that the distinction he makes be- lemmas). A lexeme is an abstract notion for a set of
tween the concepts of risk and danger is manifested word forms related by inflection.(27,43) For example,
in ordinary language. However, it is not unreason- the lexeme DANGER (noun) includes the word forms
able to assume that such a general conceptual distinc- “danger” (singular) and “dangers” (plural) and their
tion could be reflected in ordinary language use. genitive forms, “danger’s” and “dangers’.” The lex-
eme ENDANGER include “endanger,” “endanger,”
“endangered,” and “endangering.” In English, word
3. METHOD forms representing nouns and verbs sometimes co-
A growing trend in linguistics is to address re- incide. The word forms “risk” and “risks” are used
search questions about word meaning by analyzing as both verbs (e.g., “to risk” and “he risks his life”)
corpus data on natural language use.(23,25−28,40) A and nouns (e.g., “a risk” and “many risks”). The lex-
corpus is a collection of texts, and recent techni- eme RISK , as noun, includes the word forms “risk,”
cal developments have made possible large machine- “risks,” “risk’s,” and “risks’,” and the lexeme RISK ,
readable corpora. The corpus used for this study is as a verb, includes the word forms “risked” and “risk-
the British National Corpus (BNC), a 100-million ing” in addition to “risk” and “risks.” Frame ele-
word corpus of British English including excerpts ments are referred to by initial capital letter and ital-
from, for example, books, periodicals (newspapers ics are used to emphasize a constituent. For example,
and magazines), political speeches, and sport com- in “he risked his life,” the pronoun “he” is empha-
mentaries.(41) BNC includes both written and tran- sized as the subject of its clause and realizing the role
scribed spoken language, though mainly written (ap- of Protagonist.
proximately 90%). The written part of the corpus to a To test for explicit references to decision mak-
large extent consists of books (57%) (e.g., bestsellers, ing all sentences containing DECIDE, DECISION,
prize winners, and high-frequency library loans) and CHOOSE , and CHOICE in combination with RISK
periodicals (newspapers and magazines) (33%). The (noun and verb), the noun DANGER or the verb
transcribed spoken part includes, in addition to po- ENDANGER have been retrieved from BNC. Related
litical speeches and sport commentaries, lectures, words in other word classes such as the adjectives
news commentaries, classroom interactions, trade RISKY and DANGEROUS , as well as nominal but de-
union speeches, business meeting interactions, med- rived forms such as DANGEROUSNESS, are for practi-
ical, legal, and business consultations, sermons, re- cal reasons not addressed here.
ligious meetings, parliamentary proceedings, legal To compare frame element realization, four ran-
proceedings, broadcast chat shows, and phone-ins. dom samples of sentences from BNC have been re-
The texts of the corpus are mainly from the time trieved, containing (i) RISK as noun, (ii) RISK as a
period from 1985 to 1993 (91%), while smaller por- verb, (iii) DANGER , and (iv) ENDANGER, each con-
tions are from the time periods 1975 to 1984 (5%) sisting of 100 instances. The entire sample for testing
and 1960 to 1974 (2%), while 2% of the texts are frame element realization thus is 400 sentences. The
of unknown date of production. The corpus is word- frequency and specific word forms in BNC of RISK
class tagged, i.e., each word of the corpus has been (verb and noun), DANGER , and ENDANGER are listed
assigned a word class (e.g., noun, verb, and adjective) below (the nouns RISK and DANGER have no genitive
and a word class subcategory (e.g., singular and plu- forms in BNC, i.e., “risk’s,” “risks’,” “danger’s,” and
ral for nouns). Data cited herein have been extracted “dangers”):
The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger” 285

• RISK ,
noun: “risk” (9,358), “risks” (2,343) • Decision: the decision or action that may result
• RISK ,verb: finite base form “risk,” (170), in- in a bad outcome. As this element is defined
finitive “risk” (918), past tense “risked,” (209), here, it combines the definition of Deed(31) and
past participle “risked” (69), “risking” (238), Decision.(30)
“risks” (75) • Setting: the setting of the situation (e.g., the
• DANGER: “danger” (5,819), “dangers” (1,605) time or place of the situation).
• ENDANGER: finite base form “endanger” (28), • Goal: the desired outcome in the situation.
infinitive “endanger” (152), past tense “endan-
The last two elements are used in the same way
gered” (9), past participle “endangered” (67),
as by Fillmore and Atkins.(30)
“endangering” (103), “endangers” (25)
In addition to the task of coding which ele-
ments are realized, the grammatical features of func-
Each of the total of 400 sentences was then coded
tion (e.g., subject, predicate, object, and adjunct)
to realize the elements of the Risk Frame. For cod-
and form (e.g., noun phrase, verb phrase, and sub-
ing, a modified, mainly specified, list of elements
ordinate clause) have also been coded for the ele-
from those proposed by Fillmore and Atkins and dis-
cussed above has been used:(30)

• Protagonist: the person(s) at risk or in danger 4. ANALYSIS AND RESULTS

in a situation. This element roughly corre-
4.1. Explicit Reference to Decision Making
sponds to the category of “Protagonist” in Fill-
more and Atkins.(30) However, their character- Luhmann frequently emphasizes the key role of
ization of Protagonist is not very precise (“the decision making in the semantics of “risk.”(12) If such
central person in the frame”). As the term is a strong conceptual connection between risk and de-
used here, the Protagonist is always a victim in cision making is a prominent feature of natural lan-
the situation and potentially also an agent. guage, then we would expect it to be reflected in the
• Valued Object: the object(s) at risk or in dan- use of RISK (verb and noun). In parallel, given Luh-
ger in a situation. This element roughly corre- mann’s contrast between the meanings of “risk” and
sponds to “Possession” in Fillmore and Atkins, “danger,” a much weaker connection between dan-
i.e., “someone or something valued by the ger and decision making would be expected. A first
protagonist and endangered by the situation” step toward testing the relationship between deci-
(p. 367),(30) but here it is only used for ob- sion making and risk versus danger is to investigate
jects, i.e., only for “something,” not “someone how frequently RISK (verb and noun), DANGER , and
or something.” However, it should be noted ENDANGER co-occur in the same sentences as DECI -
that the Valued Object can be an abstract ob- SION and DECIDE , and the in part semantically sim-
ject (e.g., “freedom”) and often is something ilar words CHOICE and CHOOSE. Table I shows the
strongly associated with an implicit or explicit raw frequencies and percentages of RISK (noun and
protagonist, for example, a possession of the verb), DANGER , and ENDANGER that co-occur with
protagonist (e.g., a person’s life or money). DECISION and DECIDE , CHOICE , and CHOOSE in the
• Bad Outcome: the potential bad outcome of same sentence.
the situation. This corresponds to Fillmore From Table I we can conclude that it is not
and Atkins’ category, but it should be noted very common for DECISION , DECIDE, CHOICE , and
that descriptions involving the frame element CHOOSE to co-occur with RISK or with DANGER and
of Valued Object indirectly address situations ENDANGER . A more detailed investigation of the
having bad outcomes, namely, the bad out- sentences in which words for decision making and
come that some valued object is lost or dam- risk or danger co-occur reveals the various relation-
aged.(33) ships between decision making and risk or danger
• Source: someone or something other than the denoted. In these sentences explicitly referring to de-
Protagonist and Decision that is responsible cision making and risk or danger, one type of rela-
for the potential Bad Outcome posing a threat tionship is that the decision referred to is the cause
to a Valued Object. This is just a specified of the risk or danger referred to (i.e., the kind of re-
definition of Fillmore and Atkins’s, element lationship in which Luhmann is interested). This re-
Source.(30) lationship is instantiated with RISK as noun or verb
286 Boholm

Table I. Co-Occurrence in BNC of RISK, Verb (n = 1,679), RISK, Noun (n = 11,701), DANGER (n = 7,424), and ENDANGER (n = 384) with
the Verbs DECIDE and CHOOSE and the Nouns DECISION and CHOICE in the Same Sentence


n % n % n % n %

DECIDE (“decide,” “decides,” “decided,” “deciding”) 39 2.32 90 0.77 11 2.86 35 0.47

CHOOSE (“choose,” “chooses,” “choosing,” “chose,” “chosen”) 21 1.25 58 0.50 0 0.00 14 0.19
DECISION (“decision,” “decisions”) 17 1.01 142 1.21 4 1.04 47 0.63
CHOICE (“choice,” “choices”) 8 0.48 54 0.46 0 0.00 16 0.22

in 140 cases, i.e., 34% of the sentences making ex- stop the car around junction 16 to minimize the dan-
plicit reference to decision making and RISK and 1% ger to the public” and “We decided that the best ap-
of all sentences using RISK as a noun or verb. Taken proach was to minimize the risk”).
together, 17 cases of DANGER or ENDANGER instan- Based on this brief survey of sentences making
tiate the same relationship, i.e., 14% of the sentences explicit reference to decision making in the contexts
making explicit reference to decision making and of RISK (noun and verb), DANGER , and ENDANGER,
DANGER or ENDANGER and 0.2% of all sentences it can be concluded that there is no strong support
using DANGER or ENDANGER. See (5)–(11) for ex- for risks being conceptualized as consequences of de-
amples: cisions, while dangers are not. Both risks and dan-
gers are represented in such relationships and both
(5) “She decided to risk going out” rarely. The tendency, however, is less rare for RISK
(6) “The decision puts 339 jobs at risk” (noun and verb) than for DANGER and ENDANGER .
(7) “5000 offshore jobs could be at risk if the gov- From this exploration of how RISK, DANGER , and
ernment decides to impose constraints on the ENDANGER are related to decision making in an ex-
industry’s access to a free market” plicit sense, we now turn to analyzing these words
(8) “Workers who choose to go on strike have al- from a frame theory perspective.
ways faced the risk of being dismissed”
(9) “A borrower risked more than his home if he
chose the wrong lender”
(10) “The Greek government has decided to build 4.2. Frame Element Realization
a massive complex of dams to divert the
Akheloos River, endangering protected wet- According to Fillmore and Atkins,(31) represent-
land areas” ing a situation having a potential adverse outcome
(11) “. . . there was a danger that they might is fundamental to the semantic field centered on
deviate along the path recently chosen by RISK (verb and noun) and including DANGER (noun)
Yugoslavia” and ENDANGER (verb). This core meaning can fur-
ther be specified by the realization of further frame
It should be noted that the verb RISK occurs as a elements, linguistically expressed in the sentence.
catenative complement of the verb DECIDE (mainly Frame element realization within the sample for RISK
“decided”), which is not the case with ENDANGER, as verb and noun, DANGER (noun), and ENDANGER
i.e., there are constructions of the type “decided to (verb) is presented in Table II.
risk” (e.g., (5) above), but no “decided to endanger.” The nouns RISK and DANGER are quite similar
Other kinds of relationships between decision in terms of frame element realization (discussed fur-
making and risk or danger that are represented in ther below), while the verbs RISK and ENDANGER are
these sentences making explicit reference to decision different from each other. Hence, nominal and ver-
making include decisions concerning whether or not bal uses of the two concepts differ. Concerning the
something should be regarded as a risk or danger verbs, the elements of Protagonist, Bad Outcome,
(e.g., “the jury decided she had not endangered other and Goal are more commonly realized using the verb
people’s lives” and “he decided I wasn’t such a bad RISK than the verb ENDANGER , while the elements of
risk, after all”) and decisions concerning how to man- Valued Object and Source are more commonly re-
age a certain risk or danger (e.g., “It was decided to alized using ENDANGER than RISK (verb). When it
The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger” 287

Table II. Realization of Frame Elements of the Risk Frame in of Valued Object (76%) as, for example, in (15) be-
Sampled Sentences Containing the Noun RISK (n = 100), the low, or, but less frequently, the element of Protago-
Verb RISK (n = 100), the Noun DANGER (n = 100), and the
Verb ENDANGER (n = 100); Figures Refer to the
nist (6%) as in (16), but never Bad Outcome or De-
Frequency/Percent of Sentences that Contain the Frame cision.
Element in Question; A Sentence Can Contain More Than One
Frame Element, so the Table Does Not Add Up to 100% (15) “. . . we are endangering God’s creation”
(16) “. . . the Government’s lack of interest might
also endanger John”
Frame Element (Verb) (Verb) (Noun) (Noun)

Protagonist 81 15 36 24 Since ENDANGER often occurs in the passive

Bad Outcome 51 0 28 37 voice (18%), the Valued Object (15%) and Protago-
Decision 52 55 24 17 nist (3%) can also be subjects of the clause. The pas-
Goal 13 0 1 0 sive voice construction is substantially less frequent
Setting 13 3 8 14
Valued Object 27 91 17 10
for the verb RISK (only 2%). These patterns for the
Source 5 68 18 30 verb ENDANGER largely explain the high frequency
of Valued Object and low frequency for Bad Out-
come seen in Table II.5
Turning to the frame elements instantiated by
comes to the frame element of Decision, RISK (verb) the subjects of clauses with the verbs RISK and
and ENDANGER are virtually the same. ENDANGER , certain differences between the verbs
The frame elements of the Risk Frame can be re- further explain the differences found in Table II. The
alized in a number of ways. Due to space constraints, verb RISK is typically used in sentences with a noun
it is impossible to account for all of these variations in phrase as a grammatical subject that semantically
detail here; for more details regarding the grammat- constitutes the frame element of Protagonist (71%).
ical means of frame element realization, see Refs. 30 For example, this is the case in (12–14), in which the
and 31. We will focus on patterns of frame element Protagonist (the person affected in a risky situation)
realization that are relevant to understanding the se- is realized by the pronouns “you” in (12) and “she” in
mantics of RISK (verb and noun), DANGER (noun), (13) and (14). The verb ENDANGER differs from RISK
and ENDANGER (verb) in relation to agency (and (verb) in that its typical use is in sentences in which
nonagency). Because of the lack of relevance to the the subject, a noun phrase, realizes the element of
hypotheses tested here, the frame element of Setting Source (48%), i.e., someone or something, other than
will not be discussed any further. a Protagonist or Action, responsible for a Protago-
Semantically, the grammatical object of the nist or Valued Object being threatened. The Source
verb RISK realizes the frame elements of Bad Out- may be an agent as in (15) above (“we”) (32%), but
come (51%), Valued Object (24%), or Decision it need not be (16%); for example, the Source can be
(21%).(30−33) See (12)–(14) for examples of these an attitude as in (16) or a thing as in (17) below, in
three uses in which the constituent “the cracking and
the warping” in (12) realizes the frame element of
Bad Outcome, the genitive phrase “her own life” in 5 Looking more closely at the Valued Object in the cases of both
(13) realizes Valued Object, and the gerund “using RISK and ENDANGER, the most common Valued Object is LIFE
her torch” in (14) realizes Decision. (e.g., “life” and “his life”). Half of the Valued Objects in cases
of RISK consist of LIFE . Other common Valued Objects in cases
(12) “You have to risk the cracking and the warp- of RISK have a financial orientation (five cases), for example,
MONEY , PENSION , and JOB . The noun LIFE is also the most com-
ing” mon Valued Object in cases of ENDANGER (28 occurrences). Val-
(13) “She had not cared about risking her own life” ued Objects of ENDANGER clearly related to LIFE are HEALTH
(14) “. . . she risked using her torch” (five cases), SOUL (two cases), and SURVIVAL (two cases). Other
Valued Objects in the case of ENDANGER relate to safety (seven
These three patterns for the verb RISK largely ex- cases), for example, SECURITY and SAFETY, finance and career
plain the frequency seen in Table II for the elements (12 cases), for example, JOB , CAREER, POSITION, SUCCESS , and
DEVELOPMENT , values of liberal society (six cases), for example,
of Bad Outcome, Valued Object, and Decision in the
COMMUNITY and FREEDOM , and the environment (eight cases),
context of the verb RISK. Turning to the verb ENDAN - for example, “environment,” “lakes and falls,” “protected areas,”
GER , we do not find the same patterns. The object and animals, such as “dolphins” and “lemurs,” or more generally
of the verb ENDANGER does instantiate the element “species.”
288 Boholm

which “the 400,000-volt cable” is the subject of EN - The Decision can be realized as the subject of
DANGER and realizes the Source. the clause as in example (20) and (21) (6% of the
verb RISK and 13% of ENDANGER). Hence the sub-
(17) “. . . the 400,000-volt cable could endanger ject of the clause does not have to realize a Protag-
health” onist in cases of RISK (verb) or a Source in cases of
In addition to being realized as a subject, the
Source may be realized as an adjunct introduced by (20) “. . . to argue would be to risk public defeat”
the preposition “by,” for example, in the case of pas- (21) “Spending too much time on education may
sive constructions (e.g., “jobs have been endangered actually endanger one’s career”
by the Labour Opposition”).
The Source differs from that of Protagonist and A fourth way that the Decision is realized is
Valued Object in that the Source itself is not threat- as the verb and object of the main clause, in cases
ened (it is only threatening), while the Protago- in which RISK and ENDANGER are constituents of
nist and Valued Object are always threatened (even subordinate (infinite) clauses (8% the verb RISK
though the Protagonist is potentially self-responsible and 12% of ENDANGER ). Examples of this are
for being threatened). The realizations of Protago- (22) and (23).
nist, Bad Outcome, Valued Object, and Source in (22) “Risking everything he grabbed two tomatoes
association with the verbs RISK and ENDANGER in- and the biggest apples before bedding down
dicate that these verbs have different agent-victim for another night under cover of trees”
structures; they represent different relationships be- (23) “A man who lived a ‘dreamlike existence’
tween the threatened element of the situation and set fire to two multi-storey blocks of flats in
the element responsible for its being threatened.6 In Edinburgh, endangering the lives of hundreds
cases or RISK, the agent of the situation is usually also of residents”
the victim of the situation, but in cases of ENDAN -
GER , the agent is usually not a victim.7 In addition to these patterns for the realization
In about half the cases of both RISK and ENDAN - of Decision, some other patterns are not presented
GER , the element of Decision is realized. This is done here for reasons of space, i.e., two cases of RISK and
in a number of ways. The Decision can be realized as 11 cases of ENDANGER.
the object of the verb RISK , as mentioned above and In some cases of RISK (verb), the frame element
exemplified in (6) (21% of RISK as a verb). It can also of Goal is realized in its context (13%), which spec-
be an adjunct of the clause (15% of the verb RISK ifies the situation as involving goal-directed agency.
and 18% of ENDANGER) consisting of, for example, This is most often done as an adjunct; for example,
a prepositional phrase as in (18) or an “if” clause as “It’s the most common form of heroism, risking your
in (19). life to rescue one of your men.” The element of Goal
is not realized in cases of DANGER or ENDANGER,
(18) “By obstructing it, BR said tonight, they’re en- and close to never in cases of nominal RISK.
dangering the lives of a hundred and seventy Concerning the frame element realization in con-
thousand passengers who travel on the Great texts of the nouns RISK and DANGER , there are fewer
Western every day” differences between them than between the verbs
(19) “If Mr Bush vetoes the measure, he risks losing RISK and ENDANGER . This indicates, as noted above,
abortion-rights voters” that the nouns are more similar in their use than are
the verbs. In the contexts of the nouns RISK and DAN -
6 Arguably, the default reading of constructions of the type “x risks GER , the main patterns for frame element realization
y” is that x is a victim of the situation, and potentially also the are the following:
agent (i.e., agent = victim). In comparison, the default reading
of constructions of the type “x endangers y” is that y is the victim, • The element of Protagonist is mainly realized
or valued object, and x is an external source, agent or not (i.e., as subject of the clause (29 of 36 cases of RISK
agent = victim). However, by using, for example, reflexive pro- and 18 of 24 cases of DANGER). In cases of
nouns it is possible to achieve the first type of reading (agent = RISK (noun), this is mainly done in association
victim) for endanger, for example, “he endangered himself.”
7 See the entry on Endangering on FrameNet: http:// with the verbs TAKE (e.g., “someone else took the risk“), BE (e.g., “Should all members of the
frame = Endangering enemy’s population be equally at risk in time
The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger” 289

of war?”), and RUN (e.g., “you run the risk 4.3. The Semantics of “Risk” and “Danger” in
of developing high blood pressure”). In cases Relation to Agency
of DANGER , this is mainly done in association
The above results can be organized according
with the verbs BE (e.g., “A small minority of
to the following categories in relation to agency: (i)
competitors are very much in danger of spoil-
agency versus nonagency framing, (ii) agent-victim
ing the good image of equestrian sport”) and
structure, and (iii) specification of rational goal-
FACE (e.g., “they had faced one danger after
directed agency in sentences with RISK, DANGER ,
• The element of Bad Outcome is mainly real-
ized as complements to the nouns RISK and 4.3.1. Agency Versus Nonagency Framing
DANGER (25 of 28 cases of RISK and 32 of
37 cases of DANGER). Most often the com- The situation represented by a sentence may in-
plement consists of prepositional phrases with volve agency, i.e., the potential bad outcome (includ-
“of,” as in “the risk of developing high blood ing adverse effects on a victim or valued object) can
pressure” or “the danger of slippage,” or as be the result of an action or decision (agency fram-
a “that” clause (mainly DANGER) as in “a dan- ing), or be the result of some other cause (nonagency
ger that social workers will be demoralized.” framing). The above results indicate two important
Note that the element of Bad Outcome is never patterns relevant to agency versus nonagency fram-
realized in cases of the verb ENDANGER but is ing in relation to RISK, DANGER , and ENDANGER.
very common in cases of the noun DANGER, First, sentences about risk and sentences about dan-
even more common than in cases of the noun ger often refer to actions or decisions that have
RISK (see Table II).
potential bad outcomes, i.e., by means of the compo-
• The realization of Decision is largely carried nent for the frame element of Decision. Such a com-
out in the same ways as discussed in the cases ponent explicitly referring to the act pertaining to the
of the above verbs: as an adjunct of the clause, situation is used in half of the cases of the verbs RISK
the subject of the clause, or as the verb and ob- and ENDANGER , and in about one in five cases of the
ject of the main clause. In cases of DANGER , nouns RISK and DANGER (see Table II). In addition
Decision is also realized as a noun comple- to there being an explicit constituent referring to an
ment, for example, “there is a danger of read- action or decision, a sentence can sometimes be inter-
ing too much.” preted as implicitly involving an act, for example, in
• The Source is mainly realized as a complement most cases in which risking and endangering is pred-
of RISK and DANGER (e.g., “the environmental icated to people. Reconsider (12) and (15) discussed
risks of substances” and “the dangers of elec- above:
tricity”) and as the subject of the clause (e.g., (12) “You have to risk the cracking and the warp-
“Cheap graves for livestock pose health risk” ing”
and “On the coast, blowing sand and seaspray (15) “. . . we are endangering God’s creation”
presents obvious dangers to your camcorder’s
lens”). Even though (12) lacks an explicit constituent re-
• In cases of the noun RISK, the Valued Object alizing the frame element Decision, a plausible in-
is mainly realized as the subject of the clause terpretation of (12) is that the person referred to by
(e.g., “Christmas bread supplies will be at risk”) “you” risks “the cracking and the warping” as a re-
and as a modifier (e.g., “health risk”), and in sult of doing something; cf. Zaefferer.(33) Likewise,
cases of DANGER , as a noun complement (e.g., the endangering of God’s creation in (15) is plausibly
“danger to life and limb”). interpreted as a consequence of some implicit act by
the agents referred to by “we.” These interpretations
of (12) and (15), however, should be compared with
In light of this overview of the patterns of frame Fillmore and Atkins’s example, “babies ran the risk
element realization and the data on explicit reference of hypothermia there” (p. 367),(30) which does not al-
to decision making, it is now possible to make some low for the interpretation that the babies ran the risk
assertions as to the semantics of “risk” and “danger” of hypothermia as a result of their actions. This lat-
in relation to decision making and agency. ter example illustrates that it is not always the case
290 Boholm

that agency interpretations are possible, not even The situation addressed by ENDANGER, in contrast,
implicitly, despite risking and endangering being is a situation in which some Source affects a Valued
predicated to people. Object or a Protagonist (with or without acting). This
Nonagency of the situation may, however, be ar- finding to some extent gives support to Luhmann’s
ticulated more explicitly, which leads to the second idea that “danger” is the result of an “external fac-
point about agency versus nonagency framing in rela- tor.” According to Luhmann, in cases of “danger,”
tion to RISK, DANGER , and ENDANGER. By means of “the possible loss is considered to have been caused
a nonagent Source, the situation is framed as involv- externally” (p. 22) as “one is exposed to dangers”
ing a potential bad outcome as a result of some other (p. 23, emphasis added).(12) This observation is cor-
cause than an action, and such situations are more roborated by the finding on the use of ENDANGER in
commonly referred to using DANGER and ENDAN - natural language, but this relationship typically does
GER than using RISK . The frame element of Source is not hold for RISK.
more common in cases of DANGER and ENDANGER
than of RISK (see Table II). Furthermore, the Source
4.3.3 Specification of Decision and
is often a nonagent (nonperson) (51 of 98 cases). In
Goal-Directed Agency
these cases, the Source is a thing (e.g., “danger from
broken glass”), a process (e.g., “a possible chain re- Accounts using RISK tend to be specified accord-
action endangering the whole world community”), ing to parameters of planned and calculated goal-
or attitude (e.g., “dishonesty is a danger” and (16) directed action in relation to the bad outcome to
above). (The cases of an agent Source are related to a greater extent than accounts using DANGER and
the agent-victim structure discussed below.) In com- ENDANGER . The frame element of Goal is only re-
parison, in cases of RISK , the element of Source is less alized using the verb RISK. Another result pointing
common (see Table II). So while the first pattern (ex- in this direction is that RISK (as a noun and verb), in
plicitness of the frame element Decision) is equally sentences making explicit reference to decision mak-
common in the cases of both RISK and ( EN ) DANGER, ing, is more often than DANGER and ENDANGER re-
the latter pattern (explicit nonagent Source) is more lated to decisions as their effects, i.e., in constructions
common in the cases of DANGER and ENDANGER of the types exemplified in (5–9) above (e.g., “She de-
than RISK as a noun or verb (51 vs. 17 cases). cided to risk going out”). Arguably, such construc-
In relation to this discussion of agency or nona- tions not only represent a potential bad outcome as
gency framing, it should be noted that passive voice the result of agency in an unspecified manner, but
is more common in the case of ENDANGER than of also characterize a situation as one involving a delib-
RISK (18 vs. 2 cases). Passive voice can be used to put erate decision in which an agent is aware of the po-
the agent of a situation in the background, putting tential bad and positive outcomes of doing something
the person or object acted on in focus.(44,45) Hence, (e.g., “Despite being told he might die, he decided to
the use of passive voice for ENDANGER tends to give take the risk”).(30)
the agent a less prominent role (e.g., “jobs have been
endangered by the Labour Opposition”) or com-
4.4. The Relevance of Luhmann’s Distinction
pletely omit the agent from the account (e.g., “Some
Between “Risk” and “Danger” for Natural
of this criticism is based on the fear that Western in-
Language Use
terests might be endangered”). The use of nonagent
Source and passive voice suggest a stronger tendency Based on the results found here concerning nat-
toward nonagency framing in cases of DANGER and ural language use, it can be argued that Luhmann’s
ENDANGER than in cases of RISK , despite the fact characterization of the concept of risk in terms of
that DANGER and ENDANGER are often also used in agency and decision making is highly relevant. The
an agency framing way. frame element of Decision (defined as the decision
or action that may result in a bad outcome) is often
4.3.2 Agent-Victim Structure
realized using RISK, as both verb and noun. How-
The situations represented in sentences using the ever, not only is agency in this sense important for
verbs RISK and ENDANGER differ in agent-victim RISK , but it is also important for the meanings of
structures. The situations addressed by RISK mainly DANGER and ENDANGER . The frame element of De-
involve a Protagonist involved in some (explicit or cision is commonly realized in the cases of both RISK
implicit) act that may result in some bad outcome. and ( EN ) DANGER.
The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger” 291

Luhmann’s ideas can be combined with a dy- decision making and agency in understanding the se-
namic view of word meaning, for example, in line mantics of risk.(20)
with “meaning potential,”(40,46−50) which recognizes Second, this study demonstrates how a linguis-
that different but related senses of a word are re- tic approach may be helpful in risk research and in
alized depending on the context of use. Such pol- seeking to understand its fundamental concepts—cf.
ysemous structures of words are not discussed by Hamilton et al.(22) —an endeavor usually embarked
Luhmann, but are crucial for understanding the on from the perspectives of philosophy, psychology,
meaning of “risk” and “danger” in ordinary lan- sociology, or mathematics, but seldom from that of
guage. The words RISK, DANGER , and ENDANGER linguistics.
are used to express a range of different but related Third, the results have implications for the field
meanings in relation to agency and decision making: of risk communication. No doubt the choice of word
from agency to nonagency involving,(30) and from re- influences the content of what is being communi-
ferring to the fairly unspecific doings of people with cated, and knowledge of what words refer to is ar-
potential unwelcome results to specific references to guably crucial in effectively communicating informa-
the goals of intended action and decision making. tion conveying an intended content. Communication
From a corpus linguistic viewpoint, we can account is an interactive process that requires not only an ac-
for both the core and more peripheral parts of the tive sender, but also an active recipient whose inter-
meaning potential of a word, including strong and pretation is essential for content to be shared.(52) In-
weak tendencies in meaning association.(23,24,27,51) In congruences between assumptions of the sender and
applying a dynamic approach to word meaning, a ver- the recipient on word meanings and distinctions be-
sion of Luhmann’s idea about the difference between tween words are therefore possible factors effecting
“risk” and “danger” can be formulated that fits the successful sharing of information. In relation to the
empirical results presented here. many distinctions between “risk” and related terms
If we imagine a spectrum ranging from agency to such as “danger” and “hazard” in scientific texts, we
no agency, uses of DANGER and ENDANGER tend to might, first, raise the question whether these words
cluster toward the no-agency end of this spectrum are distinguished in ordinary language use, and sec-
to a greater extent than do uses of RISK . Further- ond, if so, if they are distinguished similarly in the
more, if we imagine a spectrum ranging from fairly scientific literature?(6) If a sender, who is well in-
unspecific agency to more specific forms of rational formed of the definitions and distinctions of the sci-
goal-oriented agency, another tendency is for uses of entific field, is communicating with someone who is
RISK to cluster toward the goal-oriented agency end not as familiar with those distinctions and definitions,
of the second spectrum to a greater extent than do but rather relies on how the same words are used in
uses of DANGER and ENDANGER. However, in re- ordinary language, there is a potential source for mis-
lation to the first tendency, it should be noted that understandings.
both RISK and ( EN ) DANGER are conceptualized as Concerning the first issue, distinctions may not
adverse effects of agency (i.e., there is considerable be as clear-cut in natural language as they are in
overlap in how the words are conceptualized in nat- the scientific literature. Both “risk” and “danger” are
ural language use), and the second tendency is not polysemous words. They have different, but related,
very strong, although it is stronger for RISK than meanings, which are actualized in different contexts.
for ( EN ) DANGER. It should also be noted that Luh- Partly due to their polysemy, the words of “risk” and
mann(12) regards danger to be external, “the possi- “danger” have to some extent overlapping meaning,
ble loss is considered to have been caused externally” hence are partial synonyms. For example, many of
(p. 22), a tendency that is indeed found in the empir- the elements of the Risk Frame are instantiated both
ical material studied here. with RISK and ( EN ) DANGER.
Concerning the second issue, this study has
found that “risk” has a strong agency orientation,
and this finding differs somewhat from a more rei-
fied view of risk in which a variety of things, such as
This research makes three contributions. First, avian flu, nano-technology, nuclear power plants, and
it deepens our understanding of the concepts of toxic substances, together with non-agency-involving
risk and danger. It demonstrates the relevance of processes, such as earthquakes and floods, rather
a key idea of Luhmann emphasizing the role of than (everyday) acts, are considered prototypical
292 Boholm

examples of risks. Based on the present findings, 14. Luhmann N. Modern society shocked by its risks. Social Sci-
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partment of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, 1996.
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Malden, MA: Polity, 2009.
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