Security is a common term in a range of social and professional contexts, including in military, political, and economic discourse. In each of these settings, the word presents semantic contradictions as a result its simultaneous but often contested meanings, particularly in its early subjectivization and then in its more recent relationship both to the state and to financial institutions.
Security emerges in 16c, derived from Middle French and Anglo Norman securite, indicating ‘assurance’ or ‘calmness’. The word’s earliest English senses carry a similar meaning, referring to ‘freedom from anxiety’, ‘freedom from danger’, or, not entirely dissimilarly, ‘freedom from doubt’. Security in Early Modern English related to near-synonyms rest, peace, ease, surety, carelessness, and serenity, as well as certainty and certitude.
By 16c, however, a contrary sense can also be found: ‘culpable complacency’, a sense in stark contrast to the earlier, positive meaning. Today, the negative sense ‘culpable complacency’ is commonly expressed in the phrase a false sense of security. This pair of senses, together, reflect a kind of subjectivization of security: while the earlier sense suggests an objective, factual freedom from anxiety, doubt, or danger, the latter suggests a subjective experience of such safety which is not necessarily aligned with any objective, factual safety.
Secure (adj) and secure (v) appear in 16c, and insecure in 17c. From the beginning, these words reflect both the objective and subjective senses already present in security. In addition secure (v) comes to mean ‘acquire’ by around 1600.
It might be argued that the subsequent semantic history of security reflects, generally but not exclusively, an ever more dominant perspective of the state and of financial institutions in defining what constitutes freedom from anxiety, doubt, or danger. By late 16c, security comes to refer to the safety of the state in particular against threats of any kind; the Historical Thesaurus of English does not list any synonyms for this sense, either before or since. According to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), one example of this use became particularly common in 19c. The phrase necessary to secure, as in ‘action x was necessary to secure y’, was used regularly to justify actions of the state as unavoidable in the name of (its own) safety. Securing borders and securing boundaries only appear later, in 20c, in COHA, and involve this same sense of the word: a process of rendering the state safe, as a geographical entity.
In 18c, security begins to refer to the means by which such safety is ensured, especially in relation to the safety of the state. This use refers early on to the emerging systems of prisons as well as courts. Security in this context comes also to refer to a ‘jail bond’, or capital deposit used as a means of ensuring state safety when it makes accusations (rather than a measure to ensure the safety of the accused). Similarly, the adjective secure comes to describe, by 18c, a prison that is difficult to escape from.
Again suggesting the means by which state safety is ensured, by 20c security can refer particularly to secret or clandestine activities in the interests of the state. This specialized sub-sense reveals an underlying tension in security: clandestine activities aimed at preserving the state may inevitably not ensure the safety of individuals or the populace. Relatively frequent collocation of security with intelligence (in the sphere of espionage) worldwide, as evidenced by the GLoWBE corpus (the Corpus of Global Web-Based English), suggests an international adoption of the word security in this sense.
In economics, security was used to refer to capital from 16c, with the synonym collateral. In this use, security became the means of rendering a capital investment or loan safe for the investor or lender (as opposed to ensuring safety for the borrower). It is only later, in 20c, that this concept of ‘security’ is extended to non-state organisations such as businesses or financial institutions. Financially secure and economic security are collocations that do not appear at all during 19c in COHA, but which then emerge in 20c, the latter increasing exponentially in 21c.
In 20c, security also extends to use in relation to computer systems, referring sometimes to the safety of users, especially among a technology-consuming middle class, and sometimes to the state or financial institutions (e.g. in relation to efforts to combat cyber-crime). In the GLoWBE corpus, security collocates strongly with privacy worldwide, most likely reflecting discourses concerned with data protection in 21c. In this recent usage, there is arguably a revival of meanings concerned particularly with individual safety, though many examples which can refer either to individual citizen-users or to the state or financial institutions can be seen in recent common compounds including security guard, security fence, security camera, and cybersecurity.
In 21c, two compounds have become especially important as well as extremely common, each indicating a social perspective on the contested ground now denoted by security.According to GLoWBE, food security is a particularly frequent collocation in Ghana, Kenya, and Tanzania (as well as no doubt in other countries and regions not well represented in GLoWBE), while homeland security is extremely common in American English. Each of these partly regional compounds implies its own priorities and concerns in the negotiation of safety.
Food security was first defined at the 1974 World Food Conference. The standard definition today, drawn from the World Food Summit of 1996, concerns a situation in which all people at all times have physical and economic access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food. Food security in this way ensures, at least conceptually, a measure of physical and economic safety for all people rather than exclusively for state or financial institutions. Because it includes the term security,the phrase food security serves as a comparator to more established state security and economic security. The comparison can be seen as, and may have been intended to be, subversive, undermining an implicit acceptance of security as something reserved for states and financial institutions. The term may also suggest that the safety of state and economy depend ultimately on the physical and economic safety of people; where people’s access to food conflicts with the safety of the state or economy, food security allows for prioritisation of the people’s safety over that of the state or economy. More concretely, debates surrounding food security relate to topics including the adequacy or otherwise of global agricultural production and distribution; the role of a globalising economy in food production and distribution; domestic and international laws and policies related to food production and distribution; and even household norms for distributing food within families.
Homeland security has a different trajectory. The phrase was coined as an umbrella term for work carried out throughout the United States government following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. That work was generally concerned with referents of other keywords including nation, intelligence, law, terrorism, and immigration. Homeland security involves an aim to employ intelligence (particularly in relation to espionage)and law enforcement in order to ensure the nation’s safety in relation to terrorism as well as immigration. The security of the nation, or national security, allows for the safety of the state and economy, as viewed from the position of the state, to be prioritised over the safety of individuals, and is therefore very much in line with the direction of historical semantic change in the word security.
If security appears often to indicate security for the powerful or enfranchised, or of the systems of state or capital (with the major recent exception of food security), this emphasis in the word begs a question: how often is security used to refer to the safety of the underprivileged, the powerless, or disenfranchised? COHA suggests that securing rights, in contexts which indicate ‘safeguarding natural individual rights by legal means’ (or, more ambiguously, ‘acquiring rights’), was a relatively common collocation in 19c American English. But that collocation then declines sharply in 20c. There is little corpus evidence (again, except food security)for other common uses of security referring specifically to the safety of individuals or the disempowered. Indeed sometimes the powerless themselves are referred to as security risks.
Across this complex semantic development, security presents numerous grounds for contention, by embodying a contradiction between an objective, factual freedom from anxiety or danger and a subjective, potentially erroneous, freedom from anxiety or danger. The wordis further entangled in its contested social and political meanings where subjective experiences of safety or freedom from anxiety or danger come into conflict with each other, and where the subjective experience of safety for the powerful dominates over safety for the disempowered.