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Is "risky" an acceptable spelling of "risqué" or "risque" (suggestive of sexual impropriety), such as in this article?

Selena Gomez has posed braless in a risky and sultry new photo-shoot for the British magazine British InStyle’s December edition.

I looked at Wiktionary and Oxford Dictionaries, and they don't mention that meaning in their definitions of "risky". However, this answer states that the OED has it as a meaning of "risky".

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    I don't think so. I believe they meant risqué. Don't take me on my word though; I'm curious what comes out of this one. If it's in the OED, someone better provide proof!
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 18, 2016 at 10:43
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    A Google for "Bordering upon, suggestive of, what is morally objectionable or offensive" (with quotes) comes up with 2 results: the answer you link to and a quote from Finnegans Wake.
    – Mr Lister
    Jun 18, 2016 at 10:46
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    @MrLister I think you can discount Finnegans Wake as dispositive.
    – deadrat
    Jun 18, 2016 at 18:52

7 Answers 7

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Risky is a fully Anglicized version of the French risqué. It's comparatively rare now, but from the 1880s down to the end of WWII it was far more common to write of risky stories and jokes than of risqué ones.

risky/risquéGoogle Ngrams (I do not include uses with risque, which outstrip all of these and really are mis-spellings.)

This was not mere journalistic illiteracy; here are a couple of quotations from unimpeachably literary figures:

The diplomatist told me risky stories all through dinner so it was quite natural that this cheek should blush fiery red. —Somerset Maugham, Lady Frederick, 1907

I was wild too, and I admit. I didn’t mind for anything, not even for his squeezing and pushing me on the stairs, or his risky jokes. —Joyce Cary, Herself Remembered, 1941

The first speaker is an aristocratic, the second a servant who has married into the respectable middle class and then abandoned it to become the model and mistress of the artist Gulley Jimson.


But then so is risqué; in today's more relaxed climate we are far less titillated by the mere mention of unspecified impropriety than our Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian ancestors were.

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  • It's not clear that Somerset Maugham used risky stories to suggest that the diplomatist was telling Lady Frederick salacious anecdotes (1911/12). She is retelling an episode where she had applied rouge (blusher) unevenly on her cheeks, in an earlier line we read: “...I had a foreign diplomatist on my right side which bloomed like a rose, [her right cheek] and a bishop on my left which was white like the lily...” The diplomat's stories could have been episodes of danger, so L. Fredrick's right cheek reddened in response.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2016 at 12:46
  • Whereas the bishop's stories were horrifying, so her left cheek looked drained in comparison “...And as the Bishop whispered in my left ear harrowing details of distress in the East End, it was only decent that the other should exhibit a becoming pallor....” Besides would a diplomat have retold saucy stories to an aristocrat at a formal dinner party?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2016 at 12:47
  • @Mari-LouA The point of Lady F's story is that "by a merciful interposition of Providence" the sorts of stories she was being told on either hand were appropriate to her makeup. And, yes, in Edwardian England, in Lady F's set, it's quite likely that a sophisticated foreigner would tell that sort of story to a woman of Lady F's reputation. A "risky" story is one whose telling exposes one to risk, not one whose action involves danger and risk undergone; and stories of danger and risk would not conventionally elicit a "blush" but a "pallor"--as do the Bishop's harrowing tales. Jun 19, 2016 at 13:23
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    @Mari-LouA But if you're still unconvinced, here’s an example from a much soberer genre: Havelock Ellis’ The Pyschology of Sex, vol.II, Appendix B, History XVI: “This man’s mind was replete with all manner of risky stories, all sorts of sexual details.” Jun 19, 2016 at 13:35
  • I don't know Maugham's play, but could it be that the author wanted to emphasise Lady Fredrick's shallowness and foolishness by writing risky. In the theatre, would an actress have said, ris-KEE or ris-KAY?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 19, 2016 at 13:36
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The journalist misspelled risqué

Selena Gomez has posed braless in a risky [and sultry] new photo-shoot...

The same celebrity news is reported in Highsnobiety, but there risquè is written correctly.

Selena Gomez Strips Down for Risqué Album Artwork

Looking on the Internet, I found no reputable website that suggested risky is a spelling variant of risqué: the two terms mean two different things, and have two different pronunciations.

grammar.about

The adjective risky (pronounced ris-kee) means dangerous or hazardous. The adjective risqué (pronounced ris-kay) means sexually daring, suggestive, or indecent.

Examples:

  1. Much to the concern of their parents, most children enjoy risky play involving great speed and heights.
  2. Despite her rather risqué outfit, Kathryn was really a rather quiet and conventional woman.

grammarist (unfortunately, it's become infested with sponsored ads)

Risky vs risqué

Risky means containing the possibility or likeliness of danger or failure. Risky is an adjective, related adjectives are riskier and riskiest. The adverb form is riskily, the noun form is riskiness. Risky appears around 1825, taking the place of riskful.

Risqué means improper, borderline indecent. Risqué is an adjective, it appears in the English language in the 1860s, borrowed from the French risqué, past participle of risquer, meaning tending toward impropriety. Risky and risqué are pronounced differently, risky is pronounced RISkee, and risqué holds on to its French pronunciation, risKAY.

Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage

RISKY/RISQUÉ

People unfamiliar with the French-derived word “risqué” (‘slightly indecent”) often write “risky” by mistake. Bungee-jumping is risky, but nude bungee-jumping is risqué.

Dictionary.com

risqué adjective 1. daringly close to indelicacy or impropriety; off-color:
a risqué story.

Can be confused
risky, risqué.


An Explanation for this spelling error

There used to be a time when editors hired proofreaders and copy editors to weed out spelling and punctuation errors (etc.) before an article graced the pages of a magazine or newspaper.

But nowadays, writers and journalists, for financial reasons and laziness, are increasingly reliant on spell-checkers. The adjective risky which appears in Inquisitr is not spelt (spelled) wrong, and that is probably why it was allowed to pass through. Nobody had spotted the error.

One of EL&U's most esteemed contributors, Sven Yargs, is a freelance copy-editor and has mentioned this problem several times.

Is “make due” now considered acceptable?

  1. What happens when you spell "make do" as "make due" in an online article? If you notice it later, or if someone points it out to you, and you don't like the idea that some percentage of your readers will think that you don't know how to spell "make do" correctly, you simply go back into the article and change the spelling. No permanent harm, no foul. And let's face it: It's quite a luxury to keep a bunch of editors and proofreaders on staff just to intercept those types of problems preemptively. That's why, in the past couple of decades, copy editors and proofreaders have become the whooping cranes and California condors of the publishing industry.

Is it “chalk it up to” or “chock it up to”?

  1. A Google Books search finds more than 40 unique matches for "chock it up to" in which the author presumably meant to say "chalk it up to" but either spelled chalk wrong or didn't know the correct traditional spelling of the idiom. Tellingly, the vast majority of these 40+ instances come from the past ten years, suggesting either that chock is emerging as a legitimate variant spelling of chalk in this situation or that many publishers no longer employ copy editors to find and correct mistakes of this type.
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  • Always a problem, but in this case I don't think so. If the writer chose the wrong word the sentence becomes "risqué and sultry". The meanings can be too close to each other to have a combined impact. I'll admit that "risky and sultry" doesn't have much impact either.
    – Icy
    Jun 18, 2016 at 18:35
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    @Icy What is "risky" about a photoshoot? But the young singer/actress has posed topless (risquè) in the photo session and I gather she is something of a teen idol. So, that is probably why the reporter picked up on it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jun 18, 2016 at 18:38
  • @Mari-LouA perhaps they're hinting at/confused by the risk of accidentally revealing more than planned. Or the sub-editor was and so missed the typo
    – Chris H
    Jun 18, 2016 at 18:44
  • @Mari-LouA A risqué photoshoot might be risky for an entertainer who relied on Disney to make her career. On the other hand, Miley Cyrus.
    – deadrat
    Jun 18, 2016 at 18:50
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No. Risky and risqué do not have the same meaning.

Something that is risky is dangerous, or prone to loss. "Investing in junk bonds can be lucrative, but is risky."

Something that is risqué is in questionable taste, especially in a sexual way. "She wore a dress that was a little risqué for the office party."

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    I already described what risqué meant in the question. Jun 18, 2016 at 12:25
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    Yeah well, risky doesn't mean that. Jun 18, 2016 at 12:35
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    Do you have any authority aside from your own for this pronouncement? The original question lists evidence pointing both ways, which you don't address: if risky cannot mean the same thing as risqué, why is it used this way in the linked Inquisitr article? Why is it listed as a possible meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary? If what you really mean is that you don't think people should use these words with the same meaning, why shouldn't they? Or if what you mean is that people generally don't use it with this meaning, even though some people do, provide evidence for this.
    – herisson
    Jun 18, 2016 at 16:35
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    The Oxford definition for risky has, at number two, risqué without comment.
    – Angelos
    Jun 18, 2016 at 17:24
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risqué in the English sense of naughty, sexy, salacious seems to translate to the French scabreux (among many others)

Wicktionary notes that risk and risqué share the same French root risquer - to risk - although it notes that the English use is a borrowing or loanword from French.

Might your quote be playing it straight in saying the photo might in fact be risky to her cultivated image or perhaps her career?

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  • If it was a risk to her, they'd say "sultry but risky" rather than an and, as they'd be contrasting. Jun 18, 2016 at 23:23
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Yes, OED does give the definition "risqué" for the word risky, with an example from

2004 C. Bazalgette in M. Bonham Casino p. xi, She loved to show off and to tell risky stories.

It seems the story is using risky with this meaning.

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  • I suspect a misspelling. The two words are quite distinct. See Mari-Lou A's definitive answer above.
    – Greybeard
    Sep 28, 2021 at 22:03
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There is little doubt as to the word's etymology:

Compare French risqué fraught with risk (probably 1690), improper, unsuitable, shocking (1839 or earlier), use as adjective of past participle of risquer risk v. In sense 3 after either risqué adj. or its etymon French risqué.

Risky was the first of the pair to be recorded in English.

OED

risky, adj.

  1. Involving the possibility of injury, loss, or other adverse or unwelcome circumstance; dangerous; hazardous; fraught with risk.

1813 R. Mayo View Anc. Geogr. & Anc. Hist. iii. vii. 59 The Tudors were equal to the occasion, and, trading on the desire of both sides for friendship, did not commit themselves to any expensive or risky policy.

On the other hand "risqué", in its primary meaning, did not appear for a further 50-odd years, and follows a Victorian tradition (that still continues) of using the French word for anything sexual.

risqué, adj.

Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymon: French risqué.

Etymology: < French risqué (see risky adj.). Compare risky adj.

Slightly indecent and liable to shock, esp. by being sexually suggestive. Cf. risky adj. 3.

1867 ‘Ouida’ Under Two Flags II. iv. 121 She..sang..the most wicked and risqué of her slang songs.

Going back to "risky" = "risqué" (as per the sense 3 of "risky" mentioned above) the first example is interesting:

1881 Daily News 25 July 2/6 He has carefully eliminated all the risky Gallicisms to which..the Palais Royal artists gave such point.

This example is self-referential - of course, it should be "all the risqué Gallicisms" but the writer has eliminated them.

The examples that follow do nothing to dispel the idea of "eliminating Gallicisms"

1920 D. H. Lawrence Women in Love xxix. 484 Loerke was everywhere at once, like a gnome, suggesting drinks for the women, making an obscure, slightly risky joke with the men, confusing and mystifying the waiter.

1974 Times 7 June 18/6 Those who slept missed some risky jokes.

2004 C. Bazalgette in M. Bonham Casino p. xi She loved to show off and to tell risky stories.

The OED states what has been done. It does not necessarily approve.

So, to answer the question,

Is "risky" an acceptable spelling of "risqué" or "risque"?

It depends on what you mean by "acceptable." I would say "No, it isn't as it could give rise to misunderstandings as the two words are distinct in their primary meaning. Let's keep them distinct."

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People unfamiliar with the French-derived word “risqué” (‘slightly indecent”) often write “risky” by mistake. Bungee-jumping is risky, but nude bungee-jumping is risqué. (Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage)

The article you cite blurs the line between this use, and the use of risky as dangerous.

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