Some people think of this as 2 years for a Masters and 2 more for PhD, but in practice most hard science programs don't really offer a true Masters program. When I got my doctorate, a bunch of us figured out we could apply to get our MS diploma after we finished our coursework -- hardly anyone in the PhD program had ever bothered before. We all got them and put them on our desks as a kind of inside joke.
Although searching Google - I can find references to the usage you're giving.
But, I fully agree that a Masters in a hard science, especially from a top research school, is almost always a consolation prize for those who drop out. My program would not accept students into the program for a Masters, it was PhD only, unless you dropped out.
My impression from talking to a lot of people, is that the European schools simply manage the PhD process to make sure it doesn't drag out too long. It's expected to be shorter, so it's shorter.
The big difference was that the PhD in the UK launched you straight into research on day 1. No teaching, no courses. He spent the first couple of years in courses, and a lot of time throughout the degree in teaching. In some ways I envied his coursework, since I was basically on my own from the start (his grad courses sounded very thorough and interesting). However I do not envy the 5 extra years it took him.
That was all a couple of decades ago now, so things may have changed.
Only 3% of surveyed physics PhDs took 4 years, nobody took less and 6-7 years was average.
I was, relatively, fast at it as well. M.S. was 2 years. Ph.D. was 4 years of research, 3 years of writing. Though I spent the last 2 years of writing ABD working full time for a "startup".
I really enjoyed my time in grad school. I was a computational physicist, doing molecular dynamics. The reason I went into academia was lack of professor positions . The writing was on the wall. So I decided to go the industrial route.
With the impending closure of my latest venture, I am looking around at options, and am actively interviewing. As it turns out, it looks like my thesis advisor is retiring at my alma mater, and they have an open position.
I am thinking deeply as to whether or not I really want to do physics. The pay is terrible, and I am marked as an "undesirable" as I had left academia.
I'll keep looking for my next place. This said, the Ph.D. was a good thing to do. I learned a tremendous amount, not just about a narrow area, but how to compute, measure, and reason about things that are complex.
Seems like this is in demand now. Makes me happy.