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Nassim Taleb, on a recent episode of Econtalk, talks about his upcoming book that aims to coin the word antifragility. The essential meaning is close to the phrase “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — a system or process that benefits from volatility, stress, or uncertainty. Examples:

Human bones are antifragile; they benefit from the stress of gravity and weaken without it.

In terms of forest fires, forests are antifragile — too much firefighting can cause more damage in the long run.

Taleb writes about why he needed the word:

So let us coin the appellation "antifragile" for anything that, on average, (i.e., in expectation) benefits from variability. Alas, I found no simple, noncompound word in any of the main language families that expresses the point of such fragility in reverse. To see how alien the concept to our minds, ask around what's the antonym of fragile. The likely answer will be: robust, unbreakable, solid, well-built, resilient, strong, something-proof (say waterproof, windproof, rustproof), etc. Wrong — and it is not just individuals, but branches of knowledge that are confused by it; this is a mistake made in every dictionary.

In short, words like robust and resilient don’t suggest favorability toward adverse conditions.

My question: is there a better word that exists?

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I thought there was a word that means "thrives in adverse conditions" but I can't seem to find it. Extremophile is about as close as I could come up with, and that's a pretty specific term, but one could come up with an adjective out of it. I don't think he's quite right though, it's not that they benefit from stress, but instead that they benefit from the environment and circumstances which they evolved to cope with, and indeed, often cannot survive well or at all without that environment because they don't have the mechanisms to cope with the new stuff, even if it may seem less stressful. –  Phoenix Jan 31 '12 at 18:15
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I'd quibble that the word he is looking for would not really be the antonym of "fragile". "Fragile" means "easily broken, lacking strength". So logically the antonym would be a word meaning "not easily broken" or "having strength", like "durable" or "robust". In any case, I don't have an answer to the question, I just don't like "antifragile" as an answer either. –  Jay Jan 31 '12 at 18:24
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I'd probably go for "adaptive", but that merely implies changing in accord with one's environment, not that it's better for said object to be in adverse conditions. –  Sean Duggan Jan 31 '12 at 18:41
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@mjhoy: Well, I'm not going to devote too much time to researching Taleb's "philosophy" here, though I'm guessing he'll still be banging on about the instability of global financial markets. But in the end all I see is an almost wanton muddying of the difference between individual and "group" survival - where "group" could be any level from small partnerships to global corporations to capitalism to humanity itself. The higher levels effectively require potentially fatal changes to happen at lower levels - survival of the fittest is what drives evolution in the first place. –  FumbleFingers Jan 31 '12 at 23:11
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@FumbleFingers: Could be. As I said, I haven't read the original article, just the brief quote above, so I have no idea if I would think MR Talib a genius, an idiot, a demagogue, etc. After all this discussion maybe I'll read it. –  Jay Feb 6 '12 at 17:03

3 Answers 3

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There isn't a better word for antifragile than "antifragile". I suggest that Taleb is more concerned with epistemology than etymology. I doubt there is a true antonym for fragile in English or any other language because few have grasped the idea that something can improve when mishandled or stressed. While "resilient" indicates recovery from adversity it fails to convey the positive effects of stress that are implied by "antifragile". I support using "antifragile" because its novelty may encourage a deeper understanding of how systems actually respond to perturbations. If, over the last decade, companies, economies and financial markets had been assessed as being either fragile, robust or "antifragile", our world might be better.

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thanks @DavidR -- I see your point and agree: I support using "antifragile" because its novelty may encourage a deeper understanding of how systems actually respond to perturbations. –  mjhoy Feb 1 '12 at 12:44
    
@DavidR Brilliant answer. –  Contango Dec 5 '12 at 12:19

It may be difficult to find an existing word in English, since none of the existing ones actually match the concept.

Footnote from Antifrailge by Taleb:

Once again, please, no, itisnotresilience. I am used to facing, at the end of a conference lecture, the question “So what is the difference between robust and antifragile?” or the more unenlightened and even more irritating “Antifragile is resilient, no?” The reaction to my answer is usually “Ah,” with the look “Why didn’t you say that before?” (of course I had said that before). Even the initial referee of the scientific article I wrote on defining and detecting antifragility entirely missed the point, conflating antifragility and robustness—and that was the scientist who pored over my definitions.

It is worth re-explaining the following: the robust or resilient is neither harmed nor helped by volatility and disorder, while the antifragile benefits from them. But it takes some effort for the concept to sink in.

A lot of things people call robust or resilient are just robust or resilient, the other half are antifragile.

(Emphasis added.)

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Another way of looking at your first sentence would be 'the concept does not exist in the real world'. –  TimLymington Dec 6 '12 at 23:13

The Japanese "wabi sabi" is closer than most English words.

Ref: http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/karin-fong/between-spaces/lost-translation-five-words-we-should-import

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I would not say that an answer in Japanese is a good fit for EL&U. –  Mahnax Feb 3 '12 at 14:39
    
Wabi sabi is beauty from irregularity or age. It doesn't really fit, unless you replace "beauty" with "benefits" and remove "age". Is there a Japanese word for "benefits from irregularity"? –  Contango Dec 5 '12 at 12:17

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 6 '12 at 23:13

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