UNDERCOVER AGENCY

Sometime in the mid 1500's Holy Roman Emperor Charles V famously wrote: "To God I speak Spanish, to women Italian, to men French, and to my horse - German."

Now, I live in a bilingual city, more or less stumble through both primary languages, and after years of business travel have somehow miraculously absorbed enough linguistic tidbits here and there to be able to respectfully greet people, order a coffee, get directions to a restroom and demand the right to my one phone call in the native tongue of a handful of countries.

Yet by the Emperor's standards, I'm pretty much limited to some relatively inconsequential verbal exchanges with other dudes.

Lingua Franca

The language of a place is an insightful reflection of its people. For example when I informed friends and family I was launching a boutique Lloyd's agency, they unfailingly raised an eyebrow, paused briefly and declared, "That's nice."

For those of you from Old World, Latin or Mediterranean backgrounds, that's North American-Anglo Saxon for:

"Why in the name of all that is good and the angels in heaven and all your forefathers that have died before you and Santa Anita Maria di Christina de Lavanderia must you bring shame upon our ancestral home before the entire village?"

Spy Fiction

On particularly self-assured days I can convince myself that my paltry foreign language skills render me just a few credentials shy of being an international spy.

From time to time however, even without Charlie No. 5 taunting me from beyond the grave, I can feel more than a wee bit etymologically inadequate. As a denizen of the new world, I marvel enviously at my multi-lingual old world counterparts who transition effortlessly between dialects (and species for heaven's sake!) without pause or breaking a sweat.

With each passing year, as the whole global espionage self-deluding ruse becomes less and less plausible, I am forced to come to terms with the fact that I am in desperate need of another psychological crutch to prop up my fragile self-identity.

Counter Intelligence

Conveniently enough for the sake of my ego, the lexicon of insurance is a complex hybrid of legal, nautical and financial terminology and spoken fluently by only a select and particularly masochistic few. It is, arguably, the Esperanto of the financial services world. Or so I like to convince myself.

Sure, lots of industries may boast a full compliment of dizzying acronyms and compound abbreviations, but we risk and insurance folk speak a bona fide language rooted in antiquity.

And unlike my Chianti-fuelled and foolhardy efforts to speak Italian which are equally likely to feature as many if not more Spanish and made-up words than Italian ones, a misplaced word in an insurance policy could determine the fate of millions of dollars. It is every bit as much a financial instrument as a stock or a bond and is essentially a derivative forward contract with an infinitely complex array of strike events and exercise values.

The London insurance market meanwhile takes wordsmithing to a whole new level. Lloyd's of London might as well be one big enigma machine, and we who toil within are nothing short of windtalkers, code-cracking heroes of risk.

Courtroom Drama

Much like the law itself to which it is intrinsically linked, a Lloyd's policy wording is an evolved and mature treatise, a legally binding contract within which no noun, phrase, conjunction, or punctuation, including but not limited to ".", ":" and ;", has stood the test of time. Each term is a Darwinian triumph, a survivor of dynamic adaptation and evolution through decades, if not centuries, of litigation and jurisprudence.

Which is to say, you can't just Google Translate these things and hope for the best. It's also why one might from time to time stumble across grammatical gems such as Mechanical Derangement, Willful Abandonment, Attractive Nuisance, Inherent Vice and Moral Hazard.

Believe it or not I actually use these terms with some degree of frequency in my day-to-day work and look no further than the puzzled and stunned faces of those in line with me at Starbuck's when I am on the phone for corroboration of this sad reality.

Mental Block Busters

One could be forgiven for mistakenly assuming that Mechanical Derangement was a straight-to-DVD low budget horror-adventure flick starring Benicio Del Toro, the third and final segment of the 3D-HD Motorized Insanity trilogy.

But don't put away your popcorn too fast my friends because this is about to get exciting.

Lo and behold mechanical derangement is a marine cargo insurance term with special relevance to international mobility that speaks to an important coverage extension addressing malfunctioning appliances. Such devices show no obvious signs of damage on the outside but something in the course of moving, be it the cumulative effects of vibrations in transit or one or two good thumps along the way has resulted in their untimely and mysterious demise.

And hold on to your seats because mechanical derangement is related to a marine cargo exclusion known as Inherent Vice that - ironically enough - actually was a money-losing film starring Benicio Del Toro in 2014.

In insurance parlance inherent vice address situations where "no external or extraneous peril caused the loss; rather, the loss or damage results from the internal composition of the property, or some aspect of the property that brings about its own destruction".

A seemingly appropriate definition for the policy exclusion and an equally fitting film review by all accounts.

Either way, it doesn't pay.

Maybe if the directors had played up the policy language angle, things would have gone better at the box office. After all, who can deny that both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, 1999), each a stylish, sexy and suspenseful cinematic hit, were, in the end, all about insurance?

Das Boot

Meanwhile, it seems that when salt air mixes with the language synapses and circuitry of the mind, strange things happen.

Just as once you set sail, kitchen becomes galley, bathroom becomes head, and right and left become starboard and the-other-side-of-the-boat, the marine insurance crew long ago abandoned linguistic terra firma assumedly in efforts to add a dash of spice, complexity and job security.

Losses were dubbed averages, a collision between ships became allision, and any intentional misdeeds of captain and crew was labeled barratry.

Barratry. That's a personal favorite. It may be a little difficult to work that into casual conversation beyond crossword puzzles and board games, but I feel I'm up to the challenge.

Once asea, multiline excess limits liability coverage is, you guessed it…a bumbershoot, which perhaps not surprisingly is an old English word for 'umbrella' which, it seems, was already taken.

Clearly these terms predated MS word spellcheck and texting.

Meanwhile, sweat damage arises when containerized cargo is exposed to condensation arising from a change in external temperature. Anecdotally, I believe I've had high school teachers and worked alongside some individuals who may have purchased dress shirts conveyed in containers subject to such conditions.

And let us not forget the beloved wharfinger, who, naturally, owns or operates a wharf. Duh.

I'm going to need new business cards because from this day forward I prefer to be known as a brokertoe.

Anyhoo…I'm guessing that by now you've had enough insurance definitions and word origins for one lifetime, so I must run along to repair a leak in my kid's inflatable turtle pool.

A likely case of barratry; wouldn't you agree? 

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