December 8, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: insurances? & an opinion on opine

Posted in insurances, opine at 6:42 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Insurances?

A reader writes:

I have always thought that the word ‘insurance’ was both the singular and plural form of the noun, just as deer is.  However, I have heard people say ‘insurances,’ and if you look at the profile of any doc in the UPMC General Internal Medicine group, you will find that it says ‘Insurances Accepted:’ followed by a list of insurance companies.

As long as we’re on the subject, I have always thought that the proper pronunciation of the word is ‘in SUR ance,’ with the accent on the second syllable.  However, I increasingly hear people say ‘IN sur ance,’ with the accent on the first.  At first, I thought this was just some johnny-reb pronunciation because I heard primarily from those who  learned to speak English south of the Mason-Dixon line, but I now I also hear it from people who should know better.

What say you?

I say that UPMC is using jargon. Specifically, it is using jargon specific to the insurance and financial industries. Remember, jargon is a language specific to certain professions or groups to allow those in the group to use shortcuts to communicate quickly and easily among themselves. ‘Insurances’ is a shorthand way of saying ‘insurance plans.’ It’s not that great of a shortcut, and I’m not exactly sure what it gets them, but it’s clearly a word they use. I’ve seen some examples of the use of ‘insurances’ in the New York Times—generally in business articles. The problem, as I see it, is that people in the industry forget the people outside of the industry don’t know the terminology. They use this language all the time, so they forget it’s not universal. That’s why we find words like ‘insurances’ in places designed for the general public. It’s not very user-friendly and is often a mistake when communicating outside the profession.

Now, I know some of you will google ‘insurances’ and tell me about references from the early 1900s or even earlier. That may be true, but the reality is that it’s still jargon, and insurance folks should limit its use to when they are talking to one another. When developing something for the general public, they should use ‘ insurance plans’ or something that means the same.

Let’s move on. I’m not particularly thrilled with ‘insurances’; however, I get downright cranky when it comes to INsurances. This pronunciation is wrong and is incredibly annoying. The correct pronunciation is with the emphasis on the second syllable, illustrated like this on dictionary.com: in-shoor-uhns. No dictionary is ever going to put the stress on the first syllable (in-shoor-uhns), and I am pleased about that. So why do people do it? I think it comes…and this is just my own thought…I think it comes from the perversion of the pronunciation of ‘defense’ that occurred over time. Have you noticed that hardly anybody pronounces it correctly these days? Instead of dih-fens, folks pronounce it dee-fens—In Pittsburgh, I think it started years ago when the Steelers were in their glory days, and it seemed that everyone was a rabid Steelers fan. For some reason, the pronunciation stuck and seemed to transfer over into everyday speech. It is wrong, very wrong.  But my guess is, this tendency to put the emphasis (wrongly) on the first syllable drifts across words and every now and then, infects one. This is one fault, we should really try to be aware of and avoid doing. Leave the defense on the football field.

Tip 2: An opinion about opine

A reader writes:

Is “opine” accepted as common usage today?

Sure. “opine’ is a great word and means to hold or express an opinion. The more common definition is to express an opinion.

Immediately after the reader sent this message, I started seeing the word everywhere. It was in the newspaper; it was in a book I was reading, I heard it on the news. It was everywhere. I feel very confident affirming that ‘opine’ is in wide usage today.

Here’s an example from a New York Times op ed piece about Iran from November:

Politicians like to opine on foreign policy, but they change with election cycles. Career diplomats and intelligence officials are often left to clean up the mess elected officials and political appointees leave behind.

And here is an example from November’s US News and World Report on Republican campaign gaffes:

Politics is kind of like sports–everyone feels equally entitled to opine on it and how it should be done,” says Matt McDonald, a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies and a veteran of Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign. “It’s not as easy to actually run a presidential campaign as people outside might think.”

And just so you know that its use isn’t limited to politics, here’s a quote from a November issue of Women’s Wear Daily:

“Today’s eye makeup in a way touches on extreme,” opined makeup pro Pat McGrath.”

And from perezhilton.com (what ends I go to for you), in a story on Britney Spears (I repeat, the ends I go to, oy):

“She’s definitely ready,” he opines. “She loves to work. She’s a very strong person. Everybody goes through setbacks in their lives. [But] every day, I see her getting happier and stronger.”

Have I convinced you? ‘Opine’ is alive and well and doing very nicely, thank you. As is, evidently, Britney Spears.

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