From watchtowers to cellphone towers: the origins of “alert” and “alarm”

It wasn’t just alarm clocks that went off on New York City cellphones Monday morning. Another noise also pealed: emergency alerts. The message, which The New York Times reports may be the first of its kind, was “an electronic wanted poster” for the since-arrested suspect of recent bombings in the area.

Alerts and alarms haven’t just haven’t advanced in technology, though: these words have also come along way in etymology.

On high alert? An old, Sardinian watchtower. Image by Patrizio Martorana, courtesy of


Both alert and alarm originated as Italian military phrases. Alert is from all’ erta, literally “on the watch” or “to the lookout.” Erta, a “high point,” comes from erto, “steep,” via the Latin ērigere, “to raise.” This verb also yields, among many others, English’s erect, whose sense of “raised up” parallels erto. All’, a contraction of alla, means “to the” or “on the,” ultimately from the Latin preposition ad (“to) and ille (“that,” source of the definite articles in the Romance languages).

French took up the Italian term as à l’erte, later alerte, which meant “watchful” or “vigilant” by the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests alert in 1618, though some references in the 1590s use alert as an interjection, e.g., a Castilian soldier “crying Alerto,” suggesting how the term was used a warning cry issued when the enemy was sighted.

And technically, to be on the alert, is etymologically redundant, meaning “on-the-on-the-watch.”


Similarly, alarm is from the Italian all’ arme, an interjection and literal call to arms: “To the arms!” Arme derives from the Latin arma, source and meaning of the English arms, or “weapons.” The English name for the body part indeed shares an ancient root with Latin’s arma: the Indo-European root, *ar-, “to fit together.”

Alarm has been ringing out much longer than alert, documented by the OED around the 1400s. The word signaled a general “warning of danger” by the 1570s, specifically a “loud, hurried peal of a bell” by the 1590s. The clock-based alarm is by 1639.

The variant alarum, which may sound familiar to readers of Shakespeare, is thanks to the trilled r’s in some Romance pronunciations of the word, while larum, in a process called aphesis, silenced the initial a. Some speakers may have also confused alarum for a larum

Yesterday’s watchtowers are today’s cellphone towers, calls to arms now calls to law enforcement. The forms of alerts and alarms, as practices and words, have no doubt changed over the centuries, but vigilance – judicious, informed, responsible – seems as called for as ever. 

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“Border crisis” may be the noun phrase of the American moment. Not too long ago, I looked at the origin of crisis in a different border battle. But the word border itself may be having something of its own etymological crisis.


Border, attested in the geographic sense in the 1500s, is first documented in the English of the 14th century, traced to the French bordure, referring to an “edge,” frequently of a shield. Indeed, bordure still refers to the edge of shield in heraldry. The French term is widespread in the Romance languages and may be from a Romanic root *bordus.

This is where the borders get blurred, because border may abut the same origin as board.

Board is from the Old English bord. This bord had two meanings: 1) a plank, or a material board; and 2) the side of a ship, an edge. These words and their origins get confusing and confused. They may ultimately be the same word; they may not. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology casts doubt on a common origin, while the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots grounds them in the same source.

From the first, we get things like cardboard and cupboardTables were made of boards, where food was eaten, hence room and board. Important people gather around tables for important meetings, and thus we have school board and the boardroom. Thus, board meaning table, food, or a certain collection of people functions as form of metonymy, which has graced us with its presence quite a bit lately (cf. gavel and sekw).  Seaboard retains the meaning of “edge,” and I couldn’t have typed this without my keyboard.

“Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard / To give the poor dog a bone”: from the Sarah Catherine Martin’s “The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog,” first published in England in 1805. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This board may have built bordello, from the French bordel, a “small hut,” from borde, a kind of wooden “hovel.” The word, obviously, came to refer to a brothel.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology takes this board back to a Germanic base, *borðam, formed on *breð-. The root meaning is glossed as “board.”

From the second board, we get things like starboard and to board a planeStarboard has nothing to do with stars, as the first element is related to the word steerLarboard had to walk the plank for port; its first element may be connected to load. This board goes back to a Germanic base, *borðaz.

This Germanic *borðaz may have taken up as the Romanic *bordus we saw before. French developed bord (also, bort) for “side of a ship” but also as “plank,” confusing the already confused Old English bord, which could mean “side of a ship” and “plank.” Eesh. This is partly why it’s hard to sort the boards out.


One side of the border are those, like the Oxford scholars, who keep the boards separate. On the other, we have scholars of the American Heritage Dictionary who join them way back in the Proto-Indo-European *bherdh-, “to cut.”

Both board and border, as American Heritage surveys the territory, were descended from the root’s Germanic heir, *burdam, which is proposed to mean “plank,” “board,” and “table,” returning us right back to our drawing board.  Planks, boards, tables, ship sides–all cut from wood. Edges, borders–the cutting off point, so to speak.

Board may play its games, but bordersas well see all too often, whether in North American, Eastern Europe, or the Middle East, are certainly no board games.

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risk, part I

Fast Mash

  • The ultimate origins of risk are unknown, but many have been suggested
  • The word enters English in the 1660s from French risque, in turn from a similar Italian form based on riscare (to run into danger); this is from postclassical Latin risicum, attested even then in commercial contexts
  • In Romance languages during the Middle Ages, risk appears in maritime contexts, denoting the possibility of damage to seaborne merchandise  
  • Though highly disputed, one suggestion is that risk comes from Latin resecāre (cut off), which gave Spanish risco, a cliff or crag, thus posing danger to ships carrying goods
  • Another suggestion is that risk actually comes from Icelandic ráðask (to counsel oneself regarding an attack), a military term brought into Latin, with sound changes, due to Norse attacks on the continent

Risks: Adolescents and businesspeople know them well. As do standup comedians, career changers, and credit card companies—or lovers of the board game Risk, invented, incidentally, by French director Albert Lamorisse, who rose to acclaim with his classic short film, The Red Balloon. Indeed, artists know risks, as do etymologists, a fact that become particularly apparent in the origin of, well, risk.

As the OED puts it, the origin of risk is “much debated,” and, from my rooting around, I found four possible routes: Latin, Norse, Arabic, and Greek. In this first of two posts, I’ll focus on the Latin and Norse possibilities.


While the distant origins of risk are disputed, its more recent story is not. In the 1660s, English picked up risque (the related risqué enters later) directly from the French, and it signified “danger or inconvenience, predictable or otherwise” (OED). The French took the term from the Italian risco or riscio. The noun comes from riscare, meaning “to run into danger.” There is evidence of the postclassical Latin risicumand a host of other spellings—in the 12th and 13th centuries, all “in commercial contexts” with sense of “hazard” or “danger,” the OED notes. From ancient wheeling and dealing to “risk analysis” and “risk aversion,” risk has enjoyed a robust economic life.

At this juncture, risk either runs into a dead end, or into a number of different directions, depending on how you want to look at it.

Some have traced postclassical Latin’s risicum back to classical Latin’s resecāre (to cut off). Think intersectionsecantsection, and possibly even sex. (Let’s talk about sex…another time.) There is much doubt about this particular etymology, but the suggestion does takes us to some interesting places.

So, what could be “cut off” about risks? In the middle of the 19th century, Friedrich Diez assayed an explanation in his Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages. I came across the following passage (quoted in its original German, and which Skeat cites, in fact, for his entry of risk) in the same Magnússon article I probed in my discussion of baskI had my good friend and German scholar. Matthew, translate it for me.

A little context, first. Diez anchors his etymology in the Spanish risco, a steep and abrupt rock like a crag, from the verb arriscar (go against a rock), from the past participle risco (cut off):

Span.: ar-riscarar-riesgar; Portug.: riscararriscar; French: risquer, to place in danger, to dare. Substantives: Ital.: risicorisco; Span.: riesgo; French: risque danger. Span.: risco means cliff, steep (rock)face, and this leads to rescare, to cut off, so that one thinks of a steep height as something shorn off: no differently do the Swed. skär cliff and skära cut off relate to each other. Risco could also be a sailing expression, first denoting the dangerous crags, then the danger, for which the separate form riesgolater emerged. Also corresponding thereto are New Provençal  rezegue danger, rezegá cut off, Milanese resega saw and danger, verbs resegà to saw and to dare, which can only come from rescare. Portuguese risca stroke (cut), riscar to cancel [lit. to strike out –trans.] are also to be included in this category.

So, by this reasoning, cliffs are “cut off,” and thus pose dangers to sailing vessels and the merchandise they had on board. Language historians cast much doubt on Diez’ jump from risk to rescare, but the maritime context of the word definitely stands.

We’ve seen the early commercial context of risk, much of which commerce was (and remains) waterborne. The OED cites an interesting range of Middle-Aged cognates of risk with maritime valences, with the words carrying the sense of “possibility of damage to merchandise when transported by the sea”:

  • Walloon (French-speaking subculture in Belgium) resicq, risicq 
  • Old Occitan (Provençal, language of the troubadours) rezegue
  • Catalan (a Romance language in Spain) risc
  • Spanish picks up the form and broadens it to “conflict,” “disagreement”
  • Dutch borrows the word with risco (evidenced in other forms in the Spanish Netherlands, a historical territory new to me), German with Risiko 

Geographically, these cognates form something of a spine traveling up from the Mediterranean up through Western Europe. But, if Magnússon has his say, the direction of travel is quite the other way around.


Recall that in Old Norse -sk was a reflexive verbal suffix. It -self’ed verbs, if you will. Magnússon argues that risk, featuring this same suffix, actually comes from an Icelandic word. (OK, I’m going to say Norse, since I feel it encompasses better a very closely related language family and makes more historical sense.) The word is ráðask, formed on ráða (counsel), and it means, according to Mr. Magnússon, to “counsel oneself,” “make up one’s mind,” “betake oneself” (notice the rare betake, meaning “go to”) , “to venture,” or “to risk.”

Here’s what Magnússon has to say on ráðask, emphasizing not the maritime but the military:

In the reflexive form the word occurs most commonly in the sense to risk a charge, an attack on the enemy, and is the technical word for that kind of action. The standing military phrase for to attack is ráðask á…to counsel one’s self on (onward), ráðask á fjandmennia to counsel one’s on (against) the enemy. As, on the other hand, the standing phrase for to risk a thing, the result of which is doubtful, is ráðask í to counsel one’s self into, to risk undertaking, to venture.

Magnússon goes on to argue that ráðask generates the Latin riscus, losing its middle syllable like bask did and undergoing (in his opinion) a straightforward vowel change.

But why would Latin ever borrow the word? He speculates:

I think it is very probable that the word got into the Low Latin from the Northmen, who not only ravaged the coasts of the Romance nations, but also won lands from them and settled there. In this manner I account for the derivation of risk.

Risky Business

Magnússon argues that Diez’ etymology is unlikely, particularly on the grounds that only Spanish has risco for “cliff” and that boats were less likely to meet danger in sharp cliffs than in rocks hidden underwater along the shore. I think both of these reasons are persuasive. Alas, his own case is unlikely as well. I find the variety and prevalence of Romance forms compelling. Further, while  bask may have loss the ð in baðask, English still has bathe, already close cousin to baða, whence Icelandic gets baðask. And, given the cultural contact between Scandinavian and other Europeans, I find it a stretch that Latin would have been the sole point of propagation for ráðask, in the form of riscus (which means in my dictionaries “box”), without any intervening forms.

But such are the risks we run in etymology–for, after all, language is foremost business of speech, and can’t exactly leave its record written on the air.

Risk has yet more stories to tell. Next week, we’ll look into its Arabic and Greek possibilities.

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