Taleb and the language of risk

Last night, I read about Nicholas Nassim Taleb on English Language and Usage StackExchange (EL&U). Professor Taleb wants to introduce a new word to the vocabulary of global financial collapse, antifragility:

So let us coin the appellation “antifragile” for anything that, on average, (i.e. in expectation) benefits from variability.

Consensus on EL&U was that this was a creative but unnecessary neologism. I echo the concerns of other EL&U users: Antifragility might cause confusion (maybe it is “anti-fragility”). There are many adequate, extant words that Taleb could use, however, antifragility is a term that will be uniquely associated with him.

I am not convinced that there are many entities that actually thrive due to uncertainty. A delta hedge that is long volatility is the only construct that I can think of off-hand. Perhaps that was what Taleb had in mind.

The original Black Swan

book cover of black swan with navy background

The Black Swan by Thomas Mann; 1954 UK First Edition

There was a slightly less contemporary black swan, the novella written by Nobel-prize winner Thomas Mann toward the end of his long and distinguished literary career.

The plot of that short fiction work also pertained to an anomalous event, one that could be considered a statistical outlier.


Alternatives to antifragile include robust, durable, survivable as in “survival of the fittest”, flexible, having high tensile strength, adaptable or tempered like Damascus steel.

As others said on EL&U (in response to, “Is there an existing word for antifragility?”),

I don’t think there really is a single word term for something that breaks or dies or whatever when stress is removed from it. (Phoenix)


Taleb means resilient, but he’s confusing survival of the species/system with survival of the individual. In the end I see an almost wanton muddying of the difference between individual and “group” survival – where “group” could be any level from small partnerships to global corporations to capitalism to humanity itself. The higher levels effectively require potentially fatal changes to happen at lower levels – survival of the fittest is what drives evolution in the first place. (FumbleFingers)

I found a recent review of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, with a new section “On Robustness and Fragility”, on the Amazon website. Wading through Mediocristan is amusing, sarcastic, yet acknowledges the merits of Professor Taleb’s work.

Published in: on 1 February 2012 at 6:28 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good information, thanks, I appreciate your thinking.


    • Hello Mr. Geiger! It seems like a long time ago, when I first started following your comments in the WSJ. Thank you for stopping by to say hello today.
      Regards, Ellie


  2. Great post! Curious waht you think of this: http://soberlook.com/2009/06/black-swan-of-jeane-dixon.html


    • Hello, NarrowTranche! Thank you for the compliment. I will have a look. I think I did, in the past, and forgot to follow up with you. I need to write a follow-up post to this one. N.N. Taleb himself has issued a comprehensive definition of anti-fragility, so I really don’t have much excuse for berating him now. Well, less of an excuse 😉


  3. ‘Resilient’ does not at all include the property of ‘robust’ – think Sillyputty. Trying to create a term uniquely associated with an author is not particularly blame-worthy – as Shakespeare showed thousands of times.


    • Hello Lou,
      You are correct. I have had something of a change of heart regarding all of this. I found something, two items, written by N.N. Taleb, PhD, that caused me to revise my previous point of view. I will update accordingly. Thank you for your comment, and for visiting again. I appreciate it.


  4. I don’t think that “antifragility” quite captures the concept. If Taleb has an example in mind, it should be named after that … sort of like “Black Swan”. By the way, I enjoyed this post.


  5. Engineers have used the term “robust” to describe the best system that will work as desired in the presence of noise. I would be depressed if their term predates and envelopes “anti-fragile”.


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