It’s very common to hear the word luck and associate good luck with good fortune. The two concepts are very similar and are often used synonymously. But their meanings are not exactly the same; there are small variations between the two that make them a bit different.
The primary difference between fortune and luck seems to be the how it is generally acquired. Luck is generally considered to be a result of chance, meaning that it occurs as a result of an external force and any actions taken by the individual are of no significance in whether or not luck is experienced. It is considered to be a random event.[i]
Fortune, on the other hand, can refer to success experienced as a result of the deeds and choices made by an individual, or in another context, it can often refer to the result of events surrounding spiritual or supernatural beliefs. In Latin, the Goddess of Fate was named Fortuna, which indicates that fortune also can refer to an aspect of destiny, or a predetermined likelihood of success or failure for an individual on all levels.[ii] This aspect of fortune is what fortune-telling a common practice in many different cultures and can occur in ways ranging from tarot card reading, palm reading or even in fortune cookies provided after Chinese meals.
Luck and fortune have different linguistic roots. Luck is an English word that began to appear in the late 15th century and came from the low German word luk, which is an abbreviated version of the Middle High German word gelucke. The confusion between luck and fortune stems from the difference between this use of the word luck and the history of the Slavic word lukyj, or Russian word luchaj, both of which refer to the concept of destiny or fortune.[iii]
The word fortune has Latin roots that reference Fortuna as the Goddess of fate. While good luck is often a component of good fortune, that is not always the case due to the potential intervention of divine or spiritual chance. Whereas fortune can potentially be attributed to something, luck is usually completely random.[iv]
There are four general interpretations of luck-two of which are more considered components of fortune, and the other two could only be described as luck. The first interpretation refers to luck as a ‘lack of control,’ and includes 3 types of luck. Constitutional luck, such as place of birth, is a type of luck that has factors that cannot be changed. Circumstantial luck, such as accidents, have factors that may be brought on haphazardly. And ignorance luck is luck with factors that are unknown and would only be identified in hindsight.[v]
Luck can also be interpreted as a fallacy, which holds that luck is ‘probability taken personally.’ In this case, the individual believes that because two events are connected sequentially that there is causation between the two as well. This is the type of luck that results in wishful thinking or the denial of how unpredictable random events truly can be.[vi]
When luck is interpreted as an essence, it more accurately describes fortune. This is the belief that there exists a series of spiritual or supernatural beliefs that include the idea that by performing certain rituals or avoiding others, luck can be influenced by spiritual means. This may sometimes be described as superstition or as Carl Jung defined it, synchronicity as a ‘meaningful coincidence.’ Many religions also believe that luck can be controlled by a diving force, or Divine Providence, including early Christianity which accepted omens and ritual sacrifice as methods of influencing favoritism or the will of the divinity. Ancient Mesoamerican religions or cultures, including the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas also believed that fortune could be influenced through the gods, and even went as far as providing human sacrifices in order to achieve favoritism. Traditional African beliefs, including voodoo and hoodoo also have a superstitious element in that shamans and witches have the ability to cause good or bad fortune.[vii]
The fourth interpretation of luck is as a self-fulfilling prophecy, which again, more accurately describes fortune as an element of destiny. This interpretation asserts that even if luck is false, the belief in good luck can produce positive thinking that can influence the outcomes for the better, while a belief in bad luck will cause a similar negative outcome. It is a self-reinforcing idea in which however the individual chooses to believe in it, will ultimately affect their fate or destiny. This interpretation has also gained scientific acceptance. Research has shown that “lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles.” These individuals are good at creating and noticing chance opportunities, they make lucky decisions by listening to their own intuition, they create the self-fulfilling prophecy through positive expctations and they adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good luck.[viii]
The final noticeable difference between the words luck and fortune is the proper usage of it in language. Luck is a much more informal term and may be used more broadly in general language. It can imply either a positive or negative result in that there exists both good luck or bad luck.[ix]
Fortune is recommended for use when using formal language, such as the statement “fortune favors the brave.” Fortune only indicates a positive result and the term misfortune would be used to indicate a negative one, unlike the word luck which can be both.[x]