There were a lot of interesting opinions expressed about the Old Age Name Game Poll. “Elder” in particular came under discussion and some feel that it should be reserved for people who have reached their 80th year or more, as it embodies the ideas of wise and learned along with the Biblical decree to respect elders.
Reaching one’s ninth decade does not guarantee wisdom any more than a college degree confers intelligence. Some have it, some don’t. And elder, used in acknowledgement of respect, experience and judgment has long gone missing from the U.S. vocabulary – if, indeed, it ever applied to anyone outside Native American culture. It still carries a tinge of respectfulness, but the word hardly ever comes up in general usage these days.
If I’d thought to do so, I would have applied “elder” to my friend Patrick. He died in his forties, but he was an old soul – understanding and wise beyond his years, and sought out by people of all ages for those qualities. We should all hope to become as he. But that is, again, a definition of elder in the old sense. Today, it floats around the edges of language, I think, waiting for an updated definition.
Each of us will choose to use words and phrases to reference ourselves and others as old that fit us most comfortably. All I would ask is that they be chosen with the respect a given individual deserves, and that knee-jerk pejoratives be left to die.
Language matters. The civil rights movement of the 1960s began to gain momentum when African Americans refused any longer to accept the N word. And so it is with old people. When we resist ageist language, we are demanding the respect that a youth-centric culture too often denies us.
As of this posting, “elder” had received the largest number of poll votes, 33, followed by 29 for “senior” and 28 for “Old/Older.” As to the one person who voted for “biddy” – well, bless your heart, to each her own. Where I come from that’s not meant kindly…