Get access

The Semantic Distinction Between “Risk” and “Danger”: A Linguistic Analysis


Max Boholm, Center for Public Sector Research, University of Gothenburg, P.O. Box 720, SE-40530 Göteborg, Sweden;


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 nominal 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, Possession, 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 action 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.