You are old, Father William,” the young man said
And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?” —Lewis Carroll
Elder, older, older adult, senior citizen, golden-ager, retiree – what do we want to be called now that we’ve reached “a certain age?” Whatever term you use, it’s guaranteed to offend at least some people on the older side of 60.
According to Wikipedia, terms and euphemisms for old people include “old people”(worldwide usage), “seniors” (American usage), “senior citizens” (British and American usage), “older adults” (in the social sciences), “the elderly” and “elders” (in many cultures including the cultures of aboriginal people).
“Elderly is a slap in the face, elder not so bad,” says Dawn, a Facebook friend who objects to “old” because of age discrimination. Or at least that’s what she claims.
“Old,” “elder” … “geezer”?
Hardly anyone admits to actually being “old.” A Pew Research Center study of 2,929 Americans age 18 plus found that respondents under 30 said old age begins at 60, but respondents 65 plus said 74. One 90-year-old woman didn’t think old started until you were 95.
Elder may be the lastest PC term for old, but personally I think if you want to use it, you should be an Aboriginal tribesperson – otherwise it sounds pretentious.
I kind of like “crone.” You might get slapped if you call an old woman a “crone,” but I think this term should be rehabilitated. Like “elder,” it was once a term of respect.
Then there are all the jokey names: oldster, geezer, biddy, fogey – even alta cocker, because Yiddish can be counted on to have the most colorful slang. These rather old-fashioned terms have fallen out of favor in an era where youth can be counted on to use cruder slang, like “old fart.” If I had to pick one it would be geezer. I’m proud to be a geezer geek, in fact.
How bad is “senior”?
In this country, “older person” or “older adult” are currently the most politically correct terms. I prefer “senior,” with or without citizen attached; any word that is so often paired with “discount” can’t be all bad. And it’s a euphemism I can live with because it sounds at least a little dignified.
Lots of people don’t like being called seniors, but at this point they’d better learn to live with it. We’re unlikely to see “elder discounts” anytime soon.
Despite my lack of fondness for the word “old,” I do call myself a “little old lady” occasionally because “old” is modified by “little” and “lady.” I am not a “cute” little old lady, however. The tendency to call extremely old people “cute” is rather sickening.
Some people would rather call a spade a spade. “It’s is just a fact,” my friend Belinda, a cookbook author, says. “Elder, senior, oldster… all these things seem annoying and patronizing to me. I know old is not PC and elder-senior-etc. are considered polite. But I think I’ve earned “old.”
How About “Oldie”?
The founder of the British print magazine Oldie says his aim was to produce “an antidote to youth culture but, more important, a magazine with emphasis on good writing, humour and quality illustration.” Can you imagine an American magazine for old people calling itself “Oldie” – let alone featuring great writing, graphic art and a regular column named “Still With Us,” which catches up with people you might have thought were dead. We’re stuck with one that features health tips and older celebrities who still look 35.
Could this fear of the label “old” be an American phenomenon – our way of talking around the real issue? Randi, one of my wise, if not yet elder friends, thinks so: “People who are over 60 are closer to losing their hearing and eyesight, closer to cancer, heart attacks – closer to death in fact. Isn’t that why we really have such a hard time saying ‘senior’ and no trouble saying ‘teenager?’
“If it isn’t, then why do we have such a hard time coming up with the right word?”
Well? What do you think? I’m ready for your comments!
(But first, take our poll!)