venture, adventure, misadventure

photo by Kerry Williams

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? So you put a bit more on the table in hopes of increasing your return. But be careful you don’t put too much on the table – you may come to ill chance.

That seems a natural enough progression for these three words, doesn’t it – by length? Venture – set forth; adventure – things get wild; misadventure – things turn ugly. Sometimes when you choose to take what comes to you, you end up saying “That it should come to this!”

One’s tolerance for adventure varies, of course; Kerry Williams, who suggested this triad for tasting, recalls hearing an elderly tourist embarking on a whale-watching trip remark that she did not want an adventure. Aw, but who doesn’t want a whale of a time? Heh. Well, it’s good to have a swell time, as long as the timing of the swells does not run against you, and the whale does not whale on you. I suppose it’s a matter of perspective. What looks brilliant to one person may look hellish to another.

These three words – venture, adventure, misadventure – are obviously related, and all three have been in English a long time – since the medieval era, two of them around by 1300 and the other by 1450 – but they have developed different flavours, and have had their own adventures or misadventures over the course of time. Their source is Latin ad “to” and venire “come”; it referred to something about to happen – the future, French avenir. The French word we got our English word from was aventure, and our aventure referred first to something that happens without design, by chance or luck or what have you.

Yes, that’s right: aventure came first. And then two things happened: it lost something, and it gained something. First (around 1450) it lost the a – probably reanalysis: aventure became a venture. But the original form also persisted, and a fad for returning to Latin roots brought in (around 1500) the d that French had dropped, so we got adventure. And misadventure? Actually around nearly as long as adventure, and starting out as misaventure, gaining the d at the same time as adventure did.

And of course the meanings and usages changed over time. Words are known by the company they keep, and these words have come to run with different crowds. The Corpus of Contemporary American English bears this out: joint venture, business venture, venture capital, venture into; a great adventure, sense of adventure, adventure travel, outdoor adventure; tragic misadventure, death by misadventure.

Misadventure is a rather less common word than the other two (and death by misadventure usually means “made a fatally stupid error”); books you’ll find with “misadventure” tend to be in politics, culture, history, and biography – and perhaps mystery. We know very well that venture is now a business word, even the name of a TV show focused on business ventures; no surprise that searching for books with “venture” gets you a lot of business books. Adventure, on the other hand, is not something that provokes the adult business sense, the careful wager; rather, it calls to the kid in us, who really does want to walk on the sun and so much more. And so many of the books that you’ll find with “adventure” are kids’ books, from Mark Twain to Hergé and beyond.

Not that everyone retains their childlikeness (or childishness) to the same extent, as already observed. It’s true that some people are more risk-averse than others. But where would humans be without a sense of adventure? Not humans, really, not as we know humans. All apes have some sense of adventure (it’s required for hunting, for one thing); people just take it farther. How far? To the moon! Indeed – and giant steps are what you take, walking on the moon. But, to continue the song lyric: I hope my legs don’t break, walking on the moon.

Hm. Might as well be walking on the sun. Or walking on sunshine. The latter sounds brilliant; the former, hellishly hot. But perhaps still worth venturing forth for? Kerry Williams, who lives in Alaska, organized an event last New Year’s Day for the Anchorage Adventurers Meetup group called “Walking on the Sun.” Now, obviously, while Alaska is relatively close to the Far East (where the sun rises!), and while the warmth of the sun might seem very welcoming there, it’s not actually all that close to the sun. But, yet again, it’s a matter of perspective – as Kerry’s photo, above, demonstrates. The adventurers, walking on a ridge, photographed from a distance with a long lens, take on a timeless aspect, and seem embarked on a great adventure that might have taken place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

One response to “venture, adventure, misadventure

  1. My favourite of this set is ‘peradventure’, as in 1 Kings 18:27, where Elijah is mocking the prophets of Baal for their god’s failure to appear:
    And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.

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