We aging postwar babies are faced with a dilemma. Often we are not only more knowledgeable and skilled but also more capable and effective than when we were young. Yet we can find no words to adequately reflect who or what we are as we get older.
“Retiree”? It sounds as if we’re retiring from life. “Elderly”? It immediately conjures up a cane and a wheelchair. “Senior citizen”? Don’t patronize us. “Golden-ager”? Please.
Confronted by these bland, condescending or outdated terms, some of us might be tempted to defiantly embrace one of the many epithets our language retains for older people. After all, as the young University of Pennsylvania linguist Adam M. Croom recently pointed out, “Slurs are frequently picked up and appropriated by the very in-group members that [they were] originally intended to target,” with the effect of strengthening in-group solidarity—and defusing the slurs’ sting.
But even women with a strong ego would reject out of hand such epithets as “hag” and “old bag”; while only men with a peculiar sense of humor would wish to adopt the pungent “old fart.” “Geezer” has a bit more promise, since it has been used to refer to both elderly men and women—and in some places in the world to streetwise young men.
Still, even the slightly amusing “geezer” is not quite appropriate—or adequate. When directed at older people, it, like other slurs, fails to convey anything positive. In addition, it has nothing meaningful to say about our lives as continuingly active and productive human beings.
Where, then, can we turn to find more apt and eloquent alternatives to these disappointing examples? A brief tour of some of the world’s languages and cultures yielded decidedly mixed results, yet amid a plethora of pejoratives are some appealing designations that might serve as inspirations.
'Senior' Alternatives From Around the World
The Germans have their own dismissive terms, like alter Opa (old grandpa), alte Oma (old granny) and Fossil (no translation necessary). They also have an ornithological expression resembling our “old coot”: alter Kauz (odd old fellow, literally “old owl”), and the openly derogatory alte Hexe (“old witch”).
These none-too-inspiring examples are somewhat made up for by their favorable description im besten Alter (literally, “at one’s best age”—i.e., in one’s prime), which they use for experienced, yet still vital, people in their 50s. Having personally witnessed scores of men and women im besten Alter vigorously hiking Bavaria’s mountains on fall and spring weekends—leaving less fit or accomplished young climbers in their wake—I can assure you that sobriquet is no euphemism.
In addition to the neutral los ancianos, Spanish speakers have a rather nice expression for elderly people: las personas mayores—nice because mayor not only means “older” but also “greater” or “higher.” Still, they also have their share of derogatory terms, including vieja bruja (“old hag”) for women and vejestorio (“old relic”) for men.
For their part, the French can lay claim to at least one imaginative phrase: the well-known d’un certain âge (“of a certain age”), which is usually, though not always, applied to attractive middle-aged women. Not surprisingly, this delicate appellation has erotic undertones, referring to a mature woman’s ability to initiate young men into the pleasures of sex.
Yet the French language also contains a long list of derisive designations for older people, indicating a less-than-positive attitude toward aging. The female examples include vieille bique (“old nanny goat”), vieille choette (“old owl”—there it is again) and the much worse vieille peau (“old skin,” i.e., old hag); while the slurs on old men include vieux machin (“old thing”), vieux croûton (“old crust”) and vieux imbecile (“crazy old man”).
Perhaps a more fruitful place to seek inspiration is among indigenous peoples, with their strong kinship systems. New Zealand’s Maori, for example, have an impressive number of words to refer to the elderly, suggesting the importance they place on this stage of life.
In one online Maori-English dictionary, I found more than 20 different terms for old people. Yet their definitions were boringly monotonous, ranging from “elder” or “elderly” man or woman to “patriarch” and “matriarch.” Only one word held promise—ruahine, an elderly woman employed to remove sacred objects from houses and canoes—but alas, not one that’s terribly helpful in our quest.
In India, however, where traditional family structures also remain strong, the Marathi language has two terms that quickly caught my eye: junakhoda (“old stump,” a tough and hardy old person) and junapapi (“old sinner,” a graybeard who is both shrewd and sagacious). And of course, we’re all familiar with the Hindi word guru, which has the useful dual meaning of “elder” and “instructor.”
East Asian cultures, which have a long tradition of filial piety, present some interesting options. In ancient China, for example, Confucius made the concept of xiao (“respecting your betters”) one of his five principles governing interpersonal relationships. The feudal Chinese esteemed and honored elderly people for their wisdom. This attitude, which made old age more desirable and encouraged that rare gift of advanced years—serenity—was summed up in the Chinese proverb “If a family has an old person in it, it possesses a jewel.”
Yet even in Confucius’s day, there were conditions placed on how one attained that old age. The evidence is the expression lǎo bù sǐde (“death grip on life”), which appears in the Analects of Confucius, where the sage spoke disparagingly about old people who engaged in unnatural practices to assure their longevity.
Today, China’s neighbor and rival Japan has the fastest-growing elderly population in the world. That fact, along with the country’s rapid postwar modernization, has led to a weakening of what is still a comparatively strong intergenerational bond.
While Japan maintains such rituals as Respect-for-the-Aged Day, its language conveys what can only be described as mixed feelings toward older people. Along with the inspiring okina (“venerable old man”), for example, the Japanese employ such disparaging colloquial expressions as baba (“old hag”), ojisan (“uncle,” denoting a supposedly smelly middle-aged or old man) and the shocking sodai gomi: “large heap of trash,” i.e., a retired salaryman.
Korea is another society with an ancient tradition of veneration for the elderly that still expresses ambivalence in its language. Two tables of words and sayings related to old age compiled by a Seoul sociologist include not only “man of achievement” and “seasoned scholar” but “bachelor boy”; while the charmingly idiosyncratic “aged wine” and “skillful stroke (calligraphy)” are balanced by “waning nation” and “weakened stroke.” Similarly, the positive Korean saying “The old horse knows the way” is offset by the almost-brutal “There is no point in bargaining for an old cow.”
Thus it seems that all cultures, not just our own, have a complicated view of aging, and hence of those who are undergoing the process. In other words, ambivalence is very much the norm. As the German Old Testament scholar Josef Scharbert once pointed out, pious Israelites knew that in old age, infirmity and greatness, folly and wisdom, obstinacy and prudent restraint lie closely together.
Setting all conflicted feelings aside, however, this tour d’horizon also demonstrates that we men and women “of a certain age” have a variety of constructive choices for defining our current and future selves—from “aged wine,” “guru” and “better” to the “venerable” and the “skillful,” the “seasoned” and the “sagacious.” We may choose to see ourselves as Chinese-inspired “jewels,” but if that seems a bit much, we can go for the unglamorous but still-eloquent image of the Marathis’ durable and hardy “old stump.”
A freelance writer, editor and translator im besten Alter, Munich resident Emily Berns Heyser recently completed a manuscript on the unexpected origins of weird English words.