While reading a Sunday newspaper on a plane flight to meet with a pension client early on a Monday morning, the picture on the front page of the travel section immediately drew my attention.
Although it had been a long New England winter, it wasn't a Caribbean beach scene that attracted my attention. It wasn't even a scenic view of mountains or the shore that affected me. The picture was an Italian street scene that accompanied an article on the European budget hotels, showing a sign Pensione Erdarelli.
Having worked in the pension industry for 20 years, I had grown accustomed to the word "pension" being synonymous with retirement plan, not another name for hotel. With my curiosity piqued, I set out to try to discover just how the same term came to be used for an American retirement plan and a European hotel.
A trip to the library to look at various dictionary etymologies for pension didn't quite give me the answer. Etymology is the study of word origins, not the science of bugs (that's entomology) nor another arcane investment strategy.
Webster's Third New International Dictionary noted the word pension derived from the Middle English word pensioun, which itself derived from the Middle French word pension and Middle Latin pension, which was derived from the Latin verb pendere, which meant to weigh, estimate, pay.
Still it was not clear how the definition of pension could mean both "a fixed sum paid regularly to a person . . . following his retirement from service" and "accommodations at a European hotel or boardinghouse" as Webster's indicated. An inquiry to the dictionary publisher helped resolve the confusion.
According to a letter from Joanne Despres, etymology editor at Merriam-Webster Inc., Springfield, Mass., "If you look closely at the pension entry, you'll notice that the subsenses given under the number one are preceded by a date of (14c) and by an etymology tracing the word to Middle English, thence to Middle French; those under number two, however, are preceded by a second etymology tracing the word directly to modern French.
"What this indicates is that the 'fixed payment' sense of pension defined under one is the earlier one, having first been attested in English during the fourteenth century and borrowed from an ancestor of modern French," the letter continued.
"The 'boardinghouse' sense of pension, on the other hand, is newer, and represents a later reborrowing from the modern French rather than a regular development with English of the 'fixed payment' sense of pension.
"In fact, to understand exactly how the later sense evolved from the earlier one it is necessary to consider the word's history within French where . . . pension early in its history developed the sense 'sustenance,' eventually shifting to 'meals and lodging' and finally to the specialized sense 'the place where one takes meals and lodging'," the Merriam-Webster letter concluded.
So that's why we retire from a pension plan, not a hotel plan.