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I was chatting with three friends this evening, when one of them asked about the use of some english words (we are not native speakers):

What is the difference between "security" and "safety"?

The other answered:

"Safety" is about accidental causes, and "security" is about intentional causes.

Shortly after, some (confusing?) examples were given:

  • It is safe to cross the bridge, it won't break.
  • It is secure to cross the bridge, the dinosaurs aren't looking for food.
  • This bank is secure against thieves.
  • This bridge is safe against flood damage.

Could anyone clarify this for us?

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The 2nd and 4th examples are very poor - most native speakers would reverse the words safe and secure. It's true we're more likely to speak of being secure against "anticipated threats", and safe from "unexpected mishaps", but your friend is rationalising this to a degree and direction that's misleading rather than explanatory. – FumbleFingers Feb 20 '12 at 21:49
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I found a very interesting paper on the differences of safe and secure. Here's the summary:

enter image description here

Although the paper is mainly about these words in the economical context, I think it explains quite clearly the differences in general. If I were to summarize the above table into a single line, I would agree with your friend in that roughly

"Safety" is about accidental causes, and "security" is about intentional causes.

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I very much disagree with the chart's claim that safety "hazards are observable, tangible and proximate" -- in fact if I had to choose between safety and security I'd choose the former if asked which was more likely to cover unobservable and intangible threats. But the chart is otherwise good and I agree with your conclusion. – Charles Feb 20 '12 at 20:07
@Charles: Would you argue that most native speakers would choose safety to describe what covers unobservable and intangible threats? I think that the difference is quite subtle, even for native speakers. – Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 20 '12 at 20:19
I think that the majority of people who would make a distinction would choose safety, and probably a majority overall. I'm not a good representative sample, though; I work in safety. – Charles Feb 20 '12 at 20:48
(FWIW, I gave you a +1.) – Charles Feb 21 '12 at 21:01
One could just as well make a case for saying security is about the sense of being safe, by which token safety is the result of either not encountering, or successfully dealing with, insecurity. After all, we all know that a false sense of security is exceptionally dangerous (i.e. - the opposite of safe). They're different words with many usages, some of which overlap. But the distinction here has little or no relevance to many if not most of those usages. – FumbleFingers Jun 17 '13 at 1:34

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