Security is a key term of the modern state and its apparatuses. Britain’s intelligence agencies are called the security services, and one can trace modern American history through the establishment of Social Security (1935), the National Security Agency (1952), and the Department of Homeland Security (2002). If security in many of its modern meanings is linked to the modern state, it also gains much of its force in opposition to insecurity, which becomes a key term of modern psychology in the first half of C20 for describing subjective states of mind. Given that security also has important meanings in both finance and computing, it is a word with an unusually broad range of reference and whose senses play on a set of political assumptions that are rarely explicit.
It comes into the language via both Middle French and Anglo Norman securite, both derived from the classical Latin securitas, from the prefix se—without and the noun cura meaning care. Its initial meanings refer to an objective state, “freedom from care, anxiety or apprehension” and “confidence in one’s safety or well-being.” At this stage security is related to near-synonyms rest, peace, ease, surety, carelessness, and serenity, as well as certainty and certitude. The original Latin root has a sense of “complacent negligence, carelessness” and from C16 to C18 this “over-confidence, complacency” appears to be the dominant meaning of the word. This meaning became archaic as it came into contradiction with new senses crucial both in the developing forms of capitalist finance and in the modern definition of a nation. This archaic meaning was replaced by the phrase “a false sense of security.”
From C15 on, security has been used in a wide variety of new forms of finance, with a text of 1606 pithily observing that “without good securitie they will lend Nobody mony.” The OED defines this sense as “property, etc., deposited or pledged by or on behalf of a person as a guarantee of the payment of a debt.” As capitalist forms of finance developed from C18 on, security multiplied its meaning in a wide variety of financial instruments called securities. As John Stuart Mill observed in his Principles of Political Economy (1848), “He buys from the State what are called government securities; that is, obligations by the government to pay a certain annual income.” The complexity of these financial instruments is central both to the booms and busts of capitalism and in addition to the narrow and specific sense of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Social Security Act of 1935; economic and financial security become the centerpiece of many a political party’s electoral programs. This tendency is particularly marked when the neoliberal consensus that follows the fall of the Berlin Wall means that computerization and globalization make job security, which is first recorded in 1926, an increasingly frequent term.
Important as these economic uses are, they are arguably dwarfed by the way in which the nation-state constitutes itself in terms of security. The OED provides this definition: “The safety or safeguarding of (the interests of) a state . . . against some internal or external threat, now esp. terrorism, espionage, etc.” The first examples go back to lC16, and George Washington in 1783 succinctly expresses the soon-to-be dominant meaning: “I cannot hesitate to contribute my best endeavours towards the establishment of the national security.” From C19, this notion of security, very closely linked to borders and the necessity of securing borders, becomes a major rhetorical trope in international politics as Europe redraws its own internal maps. The importance of this use is especially clear in the European refugee crisis of the second decade of C21. If borders must be made secure, so too must some of the internal population.
However, security becomes a key political term with the notion of increased threats to the state, both external and internal. The establishment of the National Security Agency at the height of the Cold War conjures a world of spies and nuclear bombs, but now the Department of Homeland Security introduces us to the world where our enemy is the person sitting next to us on a plane. This particular subsense reveals the underlying pragmatic tension in security: clandestine activities aimed at preserving and defending the state may not ensure the safety of individuals or the people at large. The relatively frequent collocation of security with intelligence (in the sphere of espionage) across the range of global Englishes suggests the international adoption of security with this sense.
Security has attracted adjectives since lC16 with the introduction of compounds such as public security and state security. The last two decades have many new compounds: national security, airport security, domestic security, culminating in biometric security. As computers have gained in social and economic importance, questions of cybersecurity have become crucial to questions of privacy and secrecy. In almost all the modern state-related meanings, security effectively talks about the security of the “haves.” The thought that this system might be incredibly damaging to the have-nots, that the system itself might be insecure, is semantically impossible.
New developments of security show the extent to which the meanings of security are now at the center of much political debate. The use of campus security to cover every kind of assault from rape and murder to engagement with unwelcome ideas raises crucial questions about the relations between free speech and personal insecurity. The demand that has emerged from these debates for psychological security might seem a contradiction in terms in a world riddled with insecurity. In the field of global politics, the attempt since the 1974 World Food Conference to argue for food security marks an attempt to produce a definition of security that is both global and universal and which focuses on the security of the have-nots rather than the haves.