Judith Graham published a post in the The New York Times on April 19, 2012, titled “Elderly no more” in which she deals with the meaning of words. She did her homework and research adequately, not being, obviously, a language professional, and asked her informants the question: “What language should we use in talking about (sic) people age 65 and older?” The (sic) is important because we are forced at times to talk to people 65 and older.
In 1881 or thereabouts, the German Iron Chancellor, Bismark, concocted a form of social insurance and pension program for workers and employees in the German Reich. The magic age of 65 was chosen because it matched the average life of Germans at that time. In reality, few working-class men reached that age, so the government only paid pensions to the few lucky ones who survived.
Now we know why Ms Graham mentions the age of 65 as the starting point of old age, decrepitude, senility and infirmity. But she is interested in language, in terminology and thus she asks several people, mostly doctors, how we should refer to those who have passed that age. “Seniors,” “elderly,” “older adults,” “senior citizens” and other terms are proposed. One of the interviewees brings up the term “elder,” but discards it because of its religious connotations.
Paraphrasing the great Stephen Leacock, let me say that my private station being that of a linguist, philologist and lexicographer, I am naturally deeply interested in words and how we use them, and thus the article aroused my interest. Also the fact that I am over 65 made me want to know how people talk about me.
People could refer to me, using terms Ms. Graham does not consider, as old timer, old goat, over the hill, gaffer, oldster, old man, coffin-dodger, old guy, geezer, old fart, past it, ancient, fossil, gramps, old fogy, and more, behind my back, naturally, not to my face. Do you believe that a medical doctor, aged 35, will ever refer to the patient in room 202 as “the old gentleman?” Most probably he will use “old fart” to refer to him. Ms. Graham does not address these more realistic questions, I repeat.
Read Related: Why I Wish Doctors Didn’t Know My Age
And how can people address me on the street? “Hey, gramps!” Or perhaps: “Hey, grandfather!” I truly doubt it because there is no way of knowing my age, which could range from 55 to 65. That’s what I think people believe, although I am much older. I would prefer to be addressed as “Excuse me, sir.” Or simply: “Sir.” In Spanish-speaking countries I am a “caballero,” which I find irritating.
Language does not help at all. English deals with age in terms of “old.” “How old is the baby?” “Three weeks old.” This should give us food for thought about the meaning of the word old. In some social classes “old man” refers to the father and “old lady” to the mother, with affection.
What does the dictionary say about old? It is not of much help. It is vague and noncommittal:
1. far advanced in the years of one’s or its life: an old man; an old horse; an old tree.
2. of or pertaining to the latter part of the life or term of existence of a person or thing: old age.
“Far advanced” is as vague as can be, for our purposes. “Pertaining to the latter part of the life or term of existence” is vague likewise. But dictionaries cannot run the risk of offending readers.
We cannot skirt the problem: old has negative implications. Young has positive implications, and we are going to have to live with that and take it in stride, calmly, philosophically, with wisdom. Besides, to a twenty-year-old, a person of 40 is an oldster.
I would advocate avoiding terms like young or old, and their synonyms. “The patient in room 202 is a male, 68 years of age.” “Those over 65 look better than their parents did at the same age.” “The government must not discriminate, especially people over 85.” “People 65 or over are now very young at heart.” “The bride is 38, the groom 66.”
In any case, we are, at any age, evolving and changing constantly, at different paces, in different ways. And we are all entitled to good manners, civility and respect… the rest is up to society.
Now I must leave you because the old-farts at my old-folks home want me to tell them about my adventures during the Korean war. Sorry, but those old-timers are very impatient.