This adjective is first cited in the OED from 1847, deriving from the Latin viaticum, related to via, “way; road”, which has been used in English since medieval times in the Roman Catholic Church for the Eucharist given to someone dying or in danger of death; in more general usage, though it is a rare and rather formal word, it retains the original Latin sense of “articles for use on a journey; travelling expenses”. Since about 1991, viatical has taken on a new figurative sense referring to the purchase of a dying person’s insurance policy to give immediate cash for medical treatment and living expenses; the full term is viatical settlement. The scheme developed to help people with AIDS but has since been extended to any terminally ill person needing money. The technique can bring valuable benefits to those helped but unscrupulous operators have sometimes taken unfair advantage and there are ethical implications when health organisations or doctors become involved. The purchaser of the policy has to continue to pay the premiums until the subject of the policy dies, so he is in effect betting on how long the seller will survive. For this reason, such purchases have been dubbed death futures. A person selling a policy in this way is sometimes called in legal English a viator. The popularity of the scheme has waned in recent times as the success of treatments for AIDS has extended life expectancy.
Page created 19 Apr. 1997
Last updated 5 Sep. 1998
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