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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the actuary and The Actuary

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everybody doesn’t hate you’ is one of my favourite lines of Woody Allen; another is his comment about a certain Anglo-Saxon epic: ‘If I had to live my life all over again, I’d do it all exactly the same – only I wouldn’t read Beowulf.’

I have some sympathy with that verdict; after all, much of Beowulf has the dramatic intensity of Guidance Note 22. However, that long and bloody work – Beowulf, that is, not GN22 – does give us one great joy: exposure to the kenningar. The kenningar is a form of metaphor that reached its apogee in Icelandic poetry towards the 11th century; it is the evocation of one thing by some fortuitous and striking pair of ostensibly unrelated words. Some examples of common kenningars:

‘Lord of the rings’ for king (Tolkein was, of course, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon); ‘wolf of the seas’ for ship; ‘whale road’ for the sea; ‘sweat of war’ for blood; ‘meeting of swords’ or ‘song of spears’ for battle; ‘house of winds’ for the air; ‘sea of the cup’ for beer; ‘spear of the mouth’ for tongue; ‘forest of the chin’ for beard.

What, we might ask, would be a modern-day kenningar to describe an actuary? Master of models? Counter of risk? Hammer of scenarios? Sweat of deflators? The word ‘actuary’ is unknown to many, and misunderstood by many of those who do know it; I am sure I am not the only actuary who has been at times thought of – partly because of my actuarial mumble – as an actor or an equerry (and see Hannah Cook’s experiences). Wouldn’t it be useful to have a simple kenningar at hand to describe ourselves with panache, rather than having to resort to the odd iambic-cum-trochaic pentameter of ‘making financial sense of the future’?

Interesting though it may be to consider alternatives – or supplements – to the word ‘actuary’, such proposals must remain as benign pipedreams. More interesting it is, and more pertinent, to consider the title of this magazine, The Actuary, and to consider what it means, how representative it is, what it says about us as a profession, and indeed what it might be taken to imply about the magazine’s ownership.

What must non-actuarial readers think of a title as imaginative as The Actuary? What does our title – and the subtitle, ‘the magazine of the actuarial profession’ – lead readers to think about the editorial ‘ownership’ of the magazine? On that subject, do actuarial readers wish for an independent voice, or for a newsletter of the Institute and the Faculty? If the magazine is the property of SIAS, to what extent should SIAS influence – or, indeed, provide – its editorial voice? If the magazine is seen externally as the flagship of our profession, where are the pronouncements of our elders?

These are questions which have struck me many times over the past two years. However, any such discussions or related decisions must be left to others: this is the last issue for which I have the honour of being the editor. As I finish writing this valedictory editorial, I should like to thank my volunteer editorial colleagues who have worked so hard and to such good effect over the past two years, in particular Joanne Alder and Seamus Creedon; and to thank the professional editorial talents of Three Rivers Publishing, in particular John Harris and Joanne Morley. I should also like to thank SIAS – and my employers, Watson Wyatt – for having given me the opportunity to serve the profession in such an exciting and rewarding way.

I embarked on this editorship two years ago with a quotation from the first issue of Samuel Johnson’s periodical, The Rambler; if readers will permit a final indulgence, it seems fitting that I end with a quotation from his concluding number of two years later:

TIME, which puts an end to all human pleasures and sorrows, has likewise concluded the labours of the Rambler. Having supported, for two years, the anxious employment of a periodical writer, and multiplied my essays to upwards of [too many”, I have now determined to desist. I must remain accountable for all my faults, and submit, without subterfuge, to the censures of criticism… Whatever shall be the final sentence of [readers”, I have at least endeavoured to deserve their kindness.…

As it has been my principal design to inculcate wisdom or piety, I have allotted few papers to the idle sports of imagination. Some, perhaps, may be found, of which the highest excellence is harmless merriment; but scarcely any man is so steadily serious as not to complain, that the severity of dictatorial instruction has been too seldom relieved, and that he is driven by the sternness of the Rambler’s philosophy to more cheerful and airy companions.… I therefore look back on this part of my work with pleasure, which no blame or praise of man shall diminish or augment. I shall never envy the honours which wit and learning obtain in any other cause, if I can be numbered among the writers who have given ardour to virtue, and confidence to truth.

My best wishes for the future to The Actuary magazine, and to all who will be working with it or writing for it.

Matthew Edwards