The Sun, a British tabloid newspaper, has a tradition of eye-catching but often xenophobic or provocative headlines, of which the most notorious appeared during the Falklands war fifteen years ago, when it celebrated the sinking of an Argentinean warship with the one word “Gotcha!”. Last week, it did it again, with a picture of the Prime Minster, Tony Blair, alongside the headline “Is THIS the most dangerous man in Britain?”. It was over an article arguing that Mr Blair, being a persuasive and plausible sort of chap, is trying to talk the country against its better judgement into joining European Monetary Union and so make us all adopt the euro instead of the pound.
We all know what we mean by dangerous: something that’s “likely or able to cause harm or injury”, as my Chambers puts it. It’s a plain word, with no possibility of misunderstanding. When Lady Caroline Lamb wrote in her journal in 1812 that Byron was “mad, bad and dangerous to know” she understood by the word then just what we do now. And yet, like so many, it has gone through several shifting senses down the centuries to reach its present unambiguous state.
The parent word danger comes ultimately from the Latin dominus, which is the origin of a fine ragbag of modern English words that includes domain, dungeon, don, dame, dome, and dominion. The first meaning of danger in the thirteenth century was closely allied to this last word; it referred to the jurisdiction or power of a lord or master, particularly his ability to hurt or harm somebody.
So the seeds of the modern sense were there from the beginning. The word was most commonly used in the phrase in (someone’s) danger, meaning that you were in, or had put yourself into, someone’s power. So in the Merchant of Venice, Portia says to Antonio during the court scene: “You stand within his danger, do you not?”, meaning that he is at Shylock’s mercy. A related sense of being liable to loss or punishment appeared in the next century; it turns up in the Authorised Version of the New Testament of 1611, though it was by then already rather old-fashioned: “I say unto you, that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the judgement”. It was no more than a short step from either of these senses to the modern meaning of being in peril.
Dangerous went through a related set of changes in its equally long history in the language. At first, it meant someone who was difficult or awkward to deal with, haughty or arrogant, almost the exact opposite of “affable”: the attitude that would readily be associated with an overbearing lord or master in whose danger one was. Later it softened a good deal to mean someone who was just difficult to please before taking on its modern meaning in the 1490s. This derived directly from the then new sense of danger and, in fact, the first recorded appearance of both danger and dangerous in their modern senses occur in early printed works by Caxton.