Calling All Readers!
Get me a word — an encompassing word — that means not young
Illustration by Saige Roberts and MashaStarus / iStock / Getty Images Plus
So, here’s my conundrum… and a request for help from readers.
I recently published an article in which I referred to a husband and wife who were in their mid- to late-80s — an amazing couple, engaged in a variety of very physical activities — by a term that sent several readers into a linguistic temper tantrum: It was the word “elderly.”
In the piece, I had naturally identified the couple by name, and then throughout the article referred to them as “Mr. and Mrs. ‘X.’” But I needed to vary the terms. I used up “the senior couple” immediately, then turned to, “the seasoned pair;” but after that, and the aforementioned, “elderly,” the terms I found describing people living into their eighth decade or beyond turned harsh, if not genuinely insulting. Flipping through three thesauri and online collections of synonyms, I could only find words that would have made an 80-year-old weep and likely gotten me fired. Here are some examples … dropped into my text:
The wizened Mrs. X makes dinner every night.
The two Methusalas like to go dancing on Fridays.
The geriatric couple hiked on Mt. Ranier.
The fossilized Mr. X is CEO of his own company.
Other words were no more helpful: decrepit, senile, dotage, antiqued, doddering, obsolete. There were the intellectual words: superannuated, indicating out of date or disqualified by age; and Nochian, meaning of the same general age as Noah! A few were clever idioms. I tried them out — in a sentence:
Mrs. X was long in the tooth, but finished her 5K.
Though having one foot in the grave, Mr. X plays tennis seven days a week.
In the end, the worst choice might have been the simply put and excruciatingly final, kaput:
For their anniversary sky-dive, though admittedly kaput, the couple jumped from the plane together.
Why is it that English has so few respectful words that identify the fact that one is no longer young or even middle-aged? And why is it that when terms for this time of life are coined, they are so often derogatory or demeaning? Many other cultures have the opposite mind-sets about aging.
In Greece, elderly abbots and nuns are graced with the name, Geronda and Gerondissa, which though it means “old one,” is associated with great wisdom, godliness, and one who has earned respect.
In the East, age is revered as a measure of wisdom and knowledge. China has passed laws specifying how elderly parents should be treated and attended to. In Korea, there are celebrations: the Hwan-gap, when a person turns 60; and an even bigger party, the KohChi, when, at 70, the person is designated, “old and rare.” Even indigenous Americans turn to the elders of the tribe for their experience and sage advice, expecting the young to sit quietly while such wisdom is passed down from the old to the possibly clueless youth.
Some have hypothesized that because America is a “can-do” nation that equates value with work, the diminished labor output of an older citizen devalues him or her as a person. Others simply point to a fetish with youth, sexuality, superficial cultural icons and the interruption of familial connections which would, in another time, have put young people in close proximity to grandparents and other older role models.
Whatever the reasons, I’m still looking for a few cogent terms that will describe an American over 60 or 70. Venerable is still too “Supreme Court-sounding” for me. Seasoned sounds like a description of a T-bone steak. And old, is of course, off the table.
But then, maybe that’s a good place to leave it. Why mention age at all? Maybe doing a triathlon at 75 is no big deal in 2017. Maybe Botox and fillers will make age-lines a distant memory. Aging could simply stop at about 40, and we’ll refer to everyone as “youngish.”
What is more likely is that with our electronic device in hand, we won’t look up to see the person with the cane, won’t hear the long-ago family stories, won’t hear advice from one who’s been there before. Old age will simply become an erasure mark.
So why worry? Maybe I won’t have to bother thinking of a synonym for old or elderly at all. And we won’t notice that the wisdom of the ages will have disappeared along with the aged.