Monday, August 30, 2010

Widow's pension

I recently read somewhere about elderly couples living together as a married couple, without the benefit of actually being married. The article suggested that they stayed unmarried because of "dire tax consequences", if they actually tied the knot.

In at least most cases, the writer had it wrong, usually it is advantageous to be married as far as taxes are concerned. I believe it is even possible in some jurisdictions to file joint returns when the folk involved are members of a domestic partnership or registered civil union.

No, when people say "they can't get married", they usually mean that they have chosen not to get married, because of financial considerations. Usually, this is because one of them is receiving a "widow's pension". I am certainly not going to sit in judgment over those who make that choice, in the light of current practice. However, I do think we should look at what is behind the reluctance to get married. In times past, the man was usually the principal, if not the only, breadwinner. The expectation of life of adult males was shorter than that of females. A considerate society felt it was appropriate to provide some support for impecunious widows. However, many widows remarried, and of course they no longer needed a widow's pension. So the employer, trade union, or even the state, could save the money.

I consider this a very dated concept. Men and women are both eligible for their own Social Security pensions. Admittedly, many of those women now receiving Social Security benefits spent years as homemakers, or worked in low-paying jobs; as a consequence, their benefits are often relatively small. But "times they are a-changing", and I believe that any pensions paid to women (or to men!) after the death of a spouse should continue until the survivor's death, whether or not the survivor remarries. Also, the importance of pensions for survivors has diminished, and in the present state of the economy, we may find that they are gradually abolished by most employers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Consent forms

A few weeks ago, I underwent a relatively minor outpatient procedure at Kaiser's Richmond medical center. The usual precautions were taken: my blood pressure and pulse before and after the procedure, and my name was written on a tape attached to my wrist - presumably in case something unexpected occurred and I had to be rushed off to the hospital's operating room.

All this I understand, but this particular procedure required me to lie supine on a table, and have straps secured around my calves - presumably in case I tried to escape!

After I was made quite comfortable, with pillows under my head and under my knees, a complicated document was stuck under my nose, and I was asked to sign a consent form. I did this quite cheerfully, being an obedient patient, but it got me thinking. It occurred to me that if a patient were unhappy with the result of the procedure, any competent attorney could easily discredit this so-called "consent form". In my mind's eye, I saw myself as a famous plaintiff's attorney, doing my best Walter Mitty act. (If that means nothing to you, ask an older person who can remember Danny Kaye's wonderful 1939 performance in "The Secret Life of Water Mitty".)

My dermatologist had detected a suspicious spot on my nose, which wouldn't heal. She had called for a biopsy, which indicated that it was some form of skin cancer. Hence the procedure. It was a complex, painstaking, and meticulous business, lasting a full hour, but all is well, and the stitches were taken out early the following week.

It would be wise for those instructing hospital personnel to train them to obtain these consent forms before the patient arrives at the operating table .Perhaps it would also be wise to have a witness sign, in case the surgery ever becomes part of a lawsuit. Such a witness could testify, if necessary, that the patient was not under duress to sign.

Monday, August 16, 2010


In Britain, this word usually means a task or plan for the future. Just as a "projectile", refers to an object moving forward, so a "project" means a proposal for (say) a new building, a park, or a business venture.

Not that these senses are misunderstood in the US, but there is another usage, probably better known in New York than in California. When people talk, often disparagingly, about the "projects" they refer to public housing, originally built for re-housing folk living in slum areas. Often, these "projects" become the new slums.

It is an interesting change of meaning from something forward-looking, and usually positive, to part of what architects call "the built environment", steadily growing shabbier and less desirable.

Monday, August 9, 2010


This is another blog of several brief items about different meanings of words used in the UK and the US.

For years, I have been alternately amused and irritated because Americans visiting England talk about "the Lake Country". Just about everyone in the UK knows this area as the "Lake District".

I shall probably go on gently correcting any American friends who "get it wrong". However, only recently did I come up with an explanation. The word "district" has a different connotation in the US, in a country where the chief prosecutor is a "district attorney".

Another usage of "district" on the western side of the Pond is for school districts. We just don't think of an open country area as a "district". That is perhaps a minor part of the problem, Brits do not enjoy hearing the area called the "Lake Country". That word is used in two main senses: to refer to a nation, and to refer to rural (rather than urban or suburban) areas. This confusion is one of many reasons to recall the witty remark, attributed to George Bernard Shaw.

Monday, August 2, 2010


My blog has gone international! Check out the comment section, and you will see Chinese characters. Thanks to Google, I have been able to read a rough translation of several comments, all of which are encouraging. I wonder whether these are students of English, who prefer, reasonably enough, to comment in their native language.

If you would like to check this out for yourself, go to:

Now back to this week's blog entry:


Here's another word which causes confusion, because its use is completely different, depending on which side of the Atlantic you live.

In Britain, the usage is entirely benign. A particular use of the term with which I have been familiar for over half a century is a "pension scheme". This merely means that it is a plan or an arrangement. Brits do talk about villains "scheming", but the noun carries no such negative connotation.

In the US, the term is less common, but when it is used it carries the overtones of a scam or plot. I remember that, many years ago, I confused a colleague when I used the term to describe a perfectly innocent plan.

Common language, indeed!