Q: My dictionary defines “safe” as meaning without risk or danger, but it includes the comparative “safer” and the superlative “safest.” If there’s no risk or danger when one is safe, how does one get safer?
A: You’re right that “safe,” in this sense, means free from harm or risk or danger. And if one is truly safe, of course, one can’t be any safer.
But “safer” doesn’t mean safer than “safe.” And “safest” isn’t necessarily safe at all.
“Safer” simply means more safe, and “safest” most safe.
One can be safer than someone else and still be in danger. And the safest of three people may be in a lion’s den, though not in its mouth.
During a tornado, for example, someone in an interior room of a house is safer than someone in a car. And someone in a basement shelter is safest of the three. But none of them are truly safe!
Similarly, the term “safe sex” refers to sexual activity in which safeguards are taken to reduce the chance of getting or spreading disease.
But some people prefer the term “safer sex” to emphasize that the risks are reduced but not eliminated. In this case, “safer” suggests sexual activity that’s less safe than “safe.”
When the adjective “safe” (originally spelled “sauf”) entered English in the late 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant free from harm or damage.
English borrowed the word from French, but its roots are in the Latin salvus (uninjured or entire).
The adjective “safe” took on the sense you’re asking about (free from danger) in the late 14th century, according to citations in the OED.
Here’s a late 16th-century example from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew: “Whil’st thou ly’st warme at home, secure and safe.”
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