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Feeling sure about 'safety' and 'security'

These two terms often travel together across the lips of public officials, but they do differ in meaning.

Why do public officials, and sometimes ordinary people, speak all the time of "safety and security"? Isn't one of these redundant, a reader wants to know.

Broadly speaking, safety is freedom from accidental injury or from illness, and security is freedom from intentional attack. A safe road is one you can travel without skidding into another car or falling into a pothole. A secure road is one you can travel without coming under attack from armed insurgents. But we also speak of "safe streets" or "safe neighborhoods" to refer to those that are free of crime, which is a form of intentional attack.

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English is full of "twins" – pairs of words, one from the Germanic side of the family and one from the French or Latin side, with essentially the same meaning but generally a whiff of contextual difference.

But safety and security are a different kind of pair. Both come ultimately from Latin – but from two different concepts. Safe came into English around 1300 from the French sauf, which in turn traces back to a Latin word, salvus, meaning healthy, uninjured, or safe. Security and secure, on the other hand, come from Latin words "without care."

Security, thus, is a state of not having to worry. But it gets complicated from there. If you've ever winced at an endless loop of announcements in an airport beginning with "Due to heightened security…" you know what I mean.

No, it's "heightened insecurity" that's got us taking off our belts and shoes, emptying our pockets, and generally getting more police attention in the course of one brief plane trip than our grandparents may have experienced in their whole lives.

Security, once it gets beyond the original concept of carefree confidence and begins to refer to the measures taken to ensure that confidence, tends to have an element of control, of domination. Safety, by contrast, is an equal-opportunity concept. A safe road is safe for everyone, even bank robbers in their getaway car. A secure perimeter, on the other hand, is by definition intended to let some people in and keep others out.

It's because of this element of control that, in some parts of the world, the term "security forces" can make civil libertarians' blood run cold.

Closer to home, people talk about food in terms of both safety and security in a way that demonstrates the two concepts. Food safety has been an issue in recent years, as problems with eggs, spinach, and other foods have come to light. But it's a concept rooted in the Progressive Era of the turn of the 20th century. Safe food is what you can eat without incident.

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Food security is a newer concept. It's what people who "don't know where their next meal is coming from" are deemed to lack. This "next meal" formulation is so down-to-earth that I'm surprised it's caught on. The related adjective, however, is less felicitous: These people are "food-insecure."

And as of last fall, the United States Department of Agriculture has a four-level "food security" classification. At least it's not color coded.

But my research has turned up this cri de coeur from a board member of a food bank in New Mexico: "Call it hunger instead of, as the USDA does, calling it 'very high food insecurity.' Get rid of that distinction. Just call hunger hunger. That helps us to target people who are more hungry."