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Today I used the phrase "retire that risk" and realized I didn't know what it meant. I've heard the phrase used by NASA, for example here:

Systems engineers are involved in this process to help...determine if new risks arise or old risks can be retired...

The usage sounds similar to "retire a debt", which I find to be another puzzling construction.

  • Does "retiring a risk" simply mean eliminating it? Or does it require elimination by virtue of passage if time?
  • What's the origin of this phrasing and is there an intuitive meaning behind it?
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    This isn't a common usage. I wonder whether the real key is a non-standard meaning for "risk," perhaps one that means "an entry tracking a risk in some kind of organizational system" Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 1:06
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    @AndyBonner the expression would be readily understandable by anyone who uses a risk management framework. If a particular risk in the organisation's Risk Register is no longer applicable (e.g. a risk related to sales of BitBots, except that division was sold to another company and the risk no longer exists), you would retire it from the register. Perhaps not very common, but it's perfectly standard: see MW's usage 1 for the transitive verb. The question lacks research. Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 7:58
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    @ChappoHasn'tForgottenMonica I'm new to this stack exchange. How should I have researched better before asking the question? Thanks.
    – Doug
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 17:09
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    @Doug Re research: for meaning or usage, I look the word up in an online lexicon (try Onelook for options). For synonyms, a thesaurus. Or etymology [which says retire "meaning 'to remove from active service' is from 1680s"]. For grammar, I search EL&U first, then go to Wikipedia. Lastly, I search the expression using a search engine. If your research doesn't resolve the issue, by all means ask a question here including the research you've done. We really welcome good questions: see How to Ask for further tips, and take our Tour! :-) Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 23:40
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    @Doug A "lacking in research" question can become useful if you focus on a specific aspect of meaning or usage. For example, you might ask whether "retire risk" is just a US usage? This n-gram shows US usage taking off in the 1990s, but substitute GB for US & you get zero! Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 0:25

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The earliest examples I have found so far are:

Mr. GOLDIN [NASA Administrator] ... I want to solve this specific problem. I want to make a casting with small grain size and high strength. I want to understand the mechanical characteristics of the ball bearings. I want to take the vibrational problems out of the system. You could do that. You could retire the risk, if you will, and then proceed on with the program and not have the type of problems that we have had. US Congress Hearing, NASA Fiscal Year 1993 Oversight

(Note the if you will in the above, perhaps suggesting the speaker thinks the expression may be unfamiliar to the audience.)

... get the money to build a follow-on to the Shuttle. We can make it possible for the industry to do that. We are trying to do that in two ways. The first is to reduce the technical risk with technology programs that will allow industry to conclude with a high degree of certainty that the risk has been retired. Aerospace America, vol. 33, p.12 (1995, Google Books snippet)

This terminology in Risk Management, which appears to have begun in the aerospace industry, is used by the US Department of Defense:

Communicating and Feedback Process – Process for communicating the status of potential, current, and retired risks as well as opportunities that may exist to all personnel involved in risk management (p.9)
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Once a program team has determined that the mitigation strategy for a risk is to control it, part of the control plan may include a risk burn-down plan for high risks. For most risks the burn-down plan consists of steps, tied to the project schedule, that allow the program to control the risk and retire risks. (p.36)
DOD Risk Management Guide for Defense Acquisition Programs (2014)

I was led to the DOD Guide from this webpage:

Question

Is there any template of questions or criteria that could be used for a risk to meet in order to be realized, retired, or identified?

Answer

This is an excellent question because it gets at the heart of good risk management. In order to answer it, we should first discuss the Program Risk Process (PRP) in general. ...

Risk Identification. Per the DoD Risk, Issue, and Opportunity Management Guide (RIO Guide), Jan 2017, risk identification occurs after the process planning step.

Risk Realization. Risk realization means the risk is no longer a risk (something that may occur in the future) since it has come to fruition. Just ask, did this risk actually occur? If so, it is an issue (assuming it is problematic). ...

Risk Retirement. There are multiple ways to retire a risk or an issue. It becomes a judgment call as to the appropriate time to take it off your RIO rhythm. You could consider questions like: Does this risk warrant any more tracking or mitigation actions? Has this risk come to fruition and is no longer an issue? DAU company webpage

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  • Nice answer, @DjinTonic. I am wondering if the risk of the O rings on the Challenger failing can be retired after the Challenger blows up?
    – Xanne
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 4:51
  • @Xanne Thank you. I thought about adding that speculation and even looked it up. It happened nine years earlier.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 11:19
  • @Xanne Thank you. Yes, quite possibly. I thought of adding that speculation and even looked it up. The Challenger disaster was in 1986. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to move the snippet any higher.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 11:26
  • It might be helpful if it could be made explicit exactly how retire the risk differs from eliminate the risk (apart from the former belonging to a jargon and the latter to everyday English).
    – jsw29
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 17:02
  • @jsw29 I agree, but I can't distinguish the nuances from just these examples. It appears this is part of a formal process in risk management. It might be that retire means it's been judged that the risk is not current and is highly unlikely to occur in the future, as the last paragraph in the examples suggests. I certainly wouldn't use or expect to hear this expression in everyday English. I peeked at some books on risk management in Google Books, but they were not searchable.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 17:16
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The use of the term risk by NASA is specific and may be peculiar to NASA.

See https://www.nasa.gov/seh/6-4-technical-risk-management.

Because NASA’s own documents define their use of the term, their own definition of risks (and the retirement thereof) is paramount in any use of the term by them.

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