Who knew the word “insurance” was so complicated?

Insurance ultimately comes from the Latin securus, “free from care.” 

Health insurance was front and center this week as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan debuted his contentious plan to repeal Obamacare. As Washington continues to deal with the political complexities of health insurance, let’s deal with the etymological complexities of the word insurance.

Health insurance is about as far from carefree as it gets – unless we look to its etymology. Image from pixabay.com.

Unsure -sure‘s 

Insurance begins as a variant of ensurance, which is ultimately an alteration of assurance.  And for a time in Early Modern English, all three words were pretty much interchangeable. This seems to be one group of words that doesn’t seem so, er, sure about itself.

The earliest recorded use of insurance comes around the 1550s, when it referred to a marriage engagement. This insurance, again, is simply a later version of ensurance, which was naming “betrothal” by the 1460s. But why marriage?

Insure, and its big brother ensure, both originally meant “to pledge.” The idea is that when you’re ensuring/insuring something, you’re giving a person a security that you will fulfill the pledge. Early on, we can surely imagine money, credit, and reputation were on the line for said ensurances/insurances, including all the dowries and rights that come when one, at least historically, pledged that hand in holy matrimony.

Ensure is attested in Chaucer’s writings of the 1370-80s,  insure in the early 1400s. These, when we break them down, simply mean “to make sure.” Here, en- and in- have the force of “to make” or, etymologically,  “to put in,” hence their root in Latin’s in. We picked up a skosh of this prefix from French and a skosh from Latin, but have been it using natively and productively since Middle English. 

And the older form ensure comes from the Anglo-Norman French enseurer. (Anglo-Norman French is what happened to Norman French when it settled in England after the Norman Conquest.) This enseurer, etymologists tell us, fiddled with the prefixes of the French asseurer, source of assure.

Assure, ensure, insure: Whatever they start with, they all share –sure, which is indeed related to sure. Sure, first meaning “safe from danger or harm” when it entered the record by the 1330s, is from the French seur or sur. But the original letters in seur/sur weren’t so safe: They got lost somewhere along their way out of Latin’s securus.

Surely secure, securely sure

Latin’s securus literally meant “free from care,” as in anxiety and fear. It joins se- (“free from,” also featured in secret) and cura (“care,” which yields cure). This adjective had a range of senses, from untroubled, nonchalant, and confident to the more negative notions of heedless or reckless to the more familiar meaning of not at risk of being harmed. And as you probably guessed, securus gives English secure, security, and other derived forms.  Secure is secured in the English lexicon by the 16th century.  The the as– in assure goes back to Latin’s ad, “to,” i.e., towards security or safety.

Both coming from Latin’s securus, sure and secure are an example of English borrowing the same root twice – or what historical linguists called a doublet. But there’s a third: sicker. The Germanic languages took up Latin’s securus long ago, leading to siker, later sicker, in Old English. It also meant “safe” or “secure.” And wait, there’s a fourth: sover is a 14th-century permutation, inserting a v sound into French’s sur. Both sover and sicker emerged in Scottish English; the former has died out, though sicker was strong through the late 19th century.

The evolution of sure follows an intuitive progression: Free from carefree from (the fear of) danger  safe, securecertain, reliable, trustworthy, firmly established, confident, undoubtedWhy, sure!, I’m sure, to be sure, you sure are a …, and the like. (For more on the affirmative sure, see linguist Lynne Murphy’s wonderful blog post.) Secure pursues a similar semantic path. And, while we’re here, surefire originally referred to guns that reliably discharged.

But why is it spelled sure but said shir? To put it far too crudely, when English borrowed sure from French, the word was pronounced more like syoor. Over time, speakers shortened the long u sound and smushed the initial sy- sound into sh-. This change also occurred in the word sugar.

Insurance company

Finally, to commercial insurance – another concept I’m going to oversimplify. With insurance, one party pays a premium to another for security against loss or damage. This core idea of security is our etymological link back to sure.

As noted, assurance was used for insurance in the late 16th century, notes the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A 1635 record refers to being insured against the risk of fire. English polymath Nicholas Culpeper wrote of an insurance office, viz. health, in 1651. And Samuel Pepys, whose extensive diary gives us an invaluable account of English life and language in the 17th century, logs a reference to maritime insurance in 1663. Another brilliant mind, Charles Babbage, considered the father of the computer, recommended in 1826 that we use assurance for life insurance and insurance for property. Babbage’s distinction held on in British English for a time, the OED adds, but insurance, and insure,  have since prevailed as the special term for the practice.

The compound health insurance – or “insurance against financial loss due to illness,” as the OED manages to concisely define one of the messiest US political conflicts of our time  – appears in US Army records by 1901. 

The US still hasn’t figured out how to make assurances for health insurance. Until it does, Republicans, for many, would be wise to remember those deeper roots of insurance: Securus, to be carefree, as it were, not to be healthcare-free. That just leads to the other sense of that word sicker.

m ∫ r ∫

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