Risk Management Reports

August 2001
Volume 28, Number 8

Variations on a Theme By Fowler

Mid-summer is a time for railing at petty annoyances. I'm thoroughly annoyed by my brother's answering machine. When I call, his voice says, "we're presently out." This is, in my opinion, a gross misuse of the word "presently." He means "now" when the word means "in a short time or soon." He disagrees and, since he is a schoolteacher, I'm constrained to listen to his argument. He cites Houghton Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition, which argues that it can be used both ways. I cite Fowler's Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, which confirms that it once meant "instantly" but, after the 17th century, came to mean "in the near future," especially in English authors of the 18th and 19th centuries. You can't read Trollope, Austen, or even the more recent O'Brian, and use "presently" to mean" now."

Despite the overwhelming number of words in the English language, expressing every nuance of meaning, we find ambiguity at every turn. Sometimes this ambiguity can be useful. When my children used to ask me, on a long drive to Maine, "when will we get there," I could in good conscience reply, "Presently!" They thought I meant almost immediately, versed as they were in the vernacular. What I meant was "in two or three hours," and the ambiguity kept them quiet for a spell.

What does all this have to do with risk management? We find the same ambiguity in the terms we use for predicting the future, and often this lack of clarity helps us. "Likely," "probable," and "possible" appear frequently in the risk assessment lexicon, but what do they really mean? When a CEO asks of a risk manager, "When will an 8.0 earthquake hit our Tokyo or San Francisco plants?" responding using a term of ambiguity equal to "presently" can spare us considerable difficulty. If we say the risk is one in one hundred years, we are still left with the possibility that it could happen today, a century from now, or anytime in between. The ISO Working Group on Risk Management Terminology wisely refrained from attempting to define these words, allowing some essential ambiguity to remain. All this confirms the wisdom of Dr. Kenneth Arrow's affirmation that risk "comes trailing clouds of vagueness."

I asked three of my readers for comparable terms of ambiguity in French and Japanese.

Hugh Rosenbaum, bilingual in French and English, offered a close parallel to "presently." "Incessament" meant "constantly" from the 13th to the 19th Century, similar to our English word, but now it means only "right away." Another is "Úventuellement." It has never meant anything other than "in case it happens," or "in case you want or need to." It never means "it's going to happen one of these days," and can lead to confusion in French loss protection instructions.

Chris Lajtha, of Schlumberger, in Paris, suggested three words for consideration:
o "franchise" - It can mean both "frankness" and "insurance deductible." Confusingly, the French "franchise" does not mean the same thing as an Anglo-Saxon "franchise" in the insurance context.
o "vulnerabilitÚ" - It translates into both "exposure" and "weakness," giving a somewhat one-sided, negative connotation to exposure.
o "prevention" - It translates as "risk control" and includes both loss prevention and loss reduction. This is not confusing to the French but may be when moving between French and English.

Kazuhiro Goto, with Mitsui Marine Research Institute, in Tokyo, notes that there are four sets of symbols describing risk management and three for the general idea of "safety," this in a language short on words, where symbols may have many meanings and shades of meaning:

The ISO Working Group's document on Risk Management Terminology has been officially approved as a global guideline, providing some consensus definitions for our global discipline. Even so, ambiguity will necessarily continue, just as it has with the word "presently."

"We're all mad here," said the Cheshire Cat. "I'm mad. You're mad."

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, Quality Paperback Book Club, New York 1994

Copyright H. Felix Kloman and Seawrack Press, Inc.

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