What is insurance? Definition and meaning

The definition and meaning of insurance is an arrangement by which a company undertakes to compensate a person, property, company or entity for specific loss, illness, damage or death. The party being compensated is called the ‘insured’, and the company providing the compensation or cover is the ‘insurer’. Sometimes the insurer is the government. The ultimate aim is always the same – to protect against financial losses and hardship if something unpleasant happens.

It is a risk-transfer mechanism that ensures either partial or full financial compensation if something unpleasant happens. For example, if I have a car, an unpleasant event could be crashing it and damaging my own vehicle, the other person’s automobile, property, and hurting people – I might even cause somebody’s death. As an insured party, I will get money to cover me financially if any of these events happen.

In the contract, the insurer indemnifies the insured against a specified amount of loss that might occur from a specified list and/or description of eventualities over a given period. The insured is covered as long as the *premium is paid.

* A premium is the amount of money that the insured must pay for an insurance policy. The money is paid monthly, quarterly, once or twice a year.

Types of insuranceLife is full of hidden dangers and risks that could happen at any moment – your house could burn down, somebody might steal your car, a serious illness could put you out of work for months or even for the rest of your life. The good news is that whatever the risk, chances are there is a policy out there to reduce the financial loss should the worst occur.

The system works by pooling all the premiums of the insured entities to pay for the losses that some of them may incur. For a premium, the insured entities are protected from risk. The size of the premium depends on the severity and frequency of the event occurring.

For an insurance system to work, for the insured to get cover, he, she or it must meet certain characteristics. For example, you are unlikely to be approved for life insurance if you are a bullfighter, or get coverage for lung cancer if your smoke 40 cigarettes each day.



Life insurance vs. general insurance

In life insurance, a fixed amount of money is paid when the person dies. In general insurance, the amount of compensation paid is proportional to the loss incurred by the unpleasant event.

For example, if the contents of my house are insured and there is a flood, causing $10,000 worth of damage, I will be paid $10,000 to either replace or repair the items that were damaged. If the damage is greater, I receive more (if my cover reaches that amount).

Insurance for unexpected eventsAccording to the American international banking and financial services holding company Wells Fargo: “Life turns on a dime. One can never predict when insurance will be needed. Many people only purchase it when it’s required, like when they’re buying a new home or car. Paying for insurance now – even if it isn’t required by your state or lender – can be an important safety net if the unexpected happens.”

If John Smith has life insurance that pays out $1 million if he dies, however, – there is just one fixed payment upon his unexpected death, regardless of how it occurred; no more…no less.

It makes sense for the primary breadwinner in a household to have life insurance. If he or she dies prematurely, the loss of income would cause significant hardship for the whole family.



It would be either impossible or extremely difficult to replace that income. With life cover, a lump sum is paid upon death, which replaces that much-needed income.

Companies can insure their premises, factory equipment, employees for accidents at work, and other tangible losses. However, their policies will not compensate them for problems with customer confidence, market share, or continuity of business.

After a disaster, the insurer cannot provide the insured business with the skills, knowledge or resources to resume operations.

Common reasons for insurance

There are literally endless eventualities that may cause people, businesses or other entities significant financial losses. Below is a list of the most common reasons insurance cover is sought:

– Protecting a household after somebody’s death from loss of income.

– Getting cover for losses incurred because of car accidents.

– Protecting your vehicle against theft, fire or flood.

– Receiving money if you become disabled.

– Protecting yourself from lawsuits.

– Protecting the contents of your home from theft, flood, hurricane, earthquake, and other hazards.

– Protecting yourself and family members against unexpected health expenses.

– Protecting your business from loss of income or interruption of business.

– Key employee cover, i.e. protecting your business if a key employee is lost.

– Covering debt repayments after death.

– A policy to cover the costs of a funeral. This is one of the oldest types of insurance there are, dating back to Ancient Greek and Roman times.

– Protecting yourself against legal claims made against you. This is called liability insurance. Most homeowner’s policies include liability coverage protecting the insured in the event of a claim brought by an individual who falls or slips on the property. A doctor would have medical malpractice insurance.

Edward Lloyds' Coffee Shop on Tower StreetAn artist’s impression of Edward Lloyd’s Coffee House on Tower Street in London, c. 1688. Who would have thought that it would become the world’s premier insurance and reinsurance market? In 2015, this market had eighty-four syndicates that wrote  £26.69 billion ($32.89 billion) of gross premiums on business placed by 242 Lloyd’s brokers. (Image: lloyds.com)

Brief history of insurance and what does it mean?

The industry dates back thousands of years. Distributing or transferring risk were practiced by Babylonian and Chinese traders two and three thousand years BC respectively.

The Babylonians had a system dating back to 1750 BC which covered merchants. If a merchant obtained a loan to fund his shipment, he would pay an additional fee to the lender, who was then committed to canceling the loan should his goods be stolen or lost at sea.

At some time during the first millennium BC, citizens of Rhodes created the general average. This allowed merchant groups to pay to insure the goods that they were shipping together.

Premiums were collected and used to reimburse any merchant whose products were jettisoned during transport.

Individual contracts – policies not bundled with loans – emerged in Genoa in the fourteenth century AD.

Kin Hubbard insurance quoteFrank McKinney Hubbard (1868-1930), better known as ‘Kin’ Hubbard, his pen name, was an American cartoonist, humorist and journalist. He created the cartoon ‘Abe Martin of Brown County’, which ran in newspapers in the US from 1904 until 1930. Many say he was America’s greatest humorist. (Image: indianahistory.org)

The first insurance contract we know about was signed in Genoa in 1347. For the next 100 years, maritime insurance developed and spread rapidly, with varied premiums.

Property insurance as we know it today existed when the Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 – the fire destroyed more than 13,000 homes. After that fire, Londoners began to view property cover as a ‘matter of urgency’ rather than one of convenience.

Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723), one of England’s most acclaimed architects, included in his new plan for London in 1667 a site for ‘The Insurance Office’.

Several attempts at fire coverage schemes failed until 1681, when economist Nicholas Barbon together with eleven associated established London’s first fire insurance company – the Insurance Office for Houses, at the back of the Royal Exchange. It provided insurance for brick and frame homes. The Insurance Office initially insured 5,000 homes.

At around the same time, the first schemes for the underwriting of business ventures emerged. By the end of the 17th century, London had become a major center for trade, with rapidly-increasing demand for marine insurance.

Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in the late 1680s, where members of the shipping industry – who wanted to insure cargoes and ships – began frequenting, as did individuals willing to underwrite such ventures.

These informal gatherings led to the establishment of Lloyd’s of London, the world-famous insurance market, as well as a number of shipping and insurance businesses.

The Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office, founded in London by William Talbot and Sir Thomas Allen in 1706, was the first company to sell life policies.

In 1762, Edward Rowe established the Society for Equitable Assurances of Lives and Survivorship – the first mutual insurer in the world.

Mr. Rowe’s company pioneered age-based premiums based on mortality rate. He lay the framework for most calculations made today in the life assurance industry.

It was not until the late 19th century that ‘accident insurance’ started to become available. It was similar to today’s disability insurance.

The Railway Passengers Assurance Company, formed in 1848 in England, was the first company to offer accident cover. The nascent railway system, which was growing rapidly, did so with a rising number of fatalities.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, governments started to initiate national insurance programs against old age and sickness. In the 1880s, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, from what is today Germany, introduced old age pensions, medical care, and accident insurance – and a type of welfare state was born.

In the United Kingdom, the Liberal government introduced extensive legislation in the 1911 National Insurance Act. For the first time ever, Britain’s working classes had a contributory system of insurance against unemployment and illness. Britain’s system was vastly expanded after WWII, forming the first modern welfare state.

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Video – Introduction to insurance and what it means?

This video explains how insurance works. It is a form of risk-management in which the insured transfers the cost of possible losses to another entity – this is done in exchange for a premium. The system allows people, companies, and other entities to protect themselves against potential losses and financial hardship.