Say What: Reckless

I like words, and I enjoy talking about their pieces and parts, what they sound like, and how we got them. This is the first in an ongoing series of posts about the etymology of words in the English language and how the origins of words relate to the ways we use them. If you’re a lover of language like me, keep reading. If you’re curious why we choose one particular word over another, this is the place to find out.

Today’s word is reckless.

Where does this word come from? A look into the OED’s entry on the word shows us that the modern form of the word ‘reckless’ was derived from the Old English recceleas (some other early versions of this word are reccileas, receleas, recelæas). There are cognates in both Dutch and German, as rōkelōs.

In case you’re a little rusty, the OED defines reckless as, “Heedless of or indifferent to the consequences of one’s actions; lacking in prudence or caution; willing or liable to take risks; rash, foolhardy; irresponsible.” Nobody wants to be seen as reckless, because as you can see the word carries quite a lot of baggage with it.

Let’s take it a step further. The ‘reck’ in reckless had to come from somewhere, right? Well there’s ‘reck’ as a noun, meaning, “Care, heed, consideration.” Or there’s its cousin, the verb form of ‘reck’ which is defined as, “To take care or thought for or notice of something, along with inclination, desire, or favour towards it, interest in it, etc.; to think (much, etc.) of.” Language is a strange beast, because there’s also another definition of the verb ‘reck’ that is, “To take notice of or be concerned about something, so as to be alarmed or troubled by it, or so as to modify one’s behaviour or purposes on account of it.” So which is it?

When was the last time you heard someone say that they ‘recked’ something? Never? That would make sense, considering it’s now an archaic and largely forgotten word.

With all of this mind, consider what it means to call someone or something ‘reckless.’ For example, can we call skydiving reckless? No. According the definition (see above), we can’t. Nobody goes skydiving without a parachute, or some other kind of safety device, because they don’t plan on dying when they do it. All the necessary precautions are taken to make sure that, assuming nothing too crazy happens, then the outcome will be the same every time: a safe landing. Yes, it is taking a risk, also part of the definition of reckless, but let’s be honest: in practice when we use the word we mean more than just risky.

OK, so what if you called someone reckless for skydiving? Then you’d be making a judgment about that person, not based on fact but on your opinion of their choices.

It is not reckless to go skydiving as long as you do it the correct way, but it is reckless to drive drunk. See the difference?

Are you engaging in reckless behavior? How often?

And if you are, would it make a good story?

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