Language about Aging

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Social phenomena and social practices often exist long before they receive an identifying label. The subsequent act of naming an activity is significant because it allows people to refer to it. The word ageism is a case in point. Until Robert N. Butler introduced the term in 1969, there was no uniform way to refer to the behaviors associated with the practice of ageism, even though the activity had existed long before it acquired a label. This word now appears in virtually every dictionary of the English language published since the 1970s. The first definitions of ageism focused almost exclusively on its negative characteristics, since much of the treatment of older adults in society constituted mistreatment. The term may allude to prejudice (stereotypes and attitudes) or to discrimination (personal or institutional). Prejudice exists in the mind and represents stereotypical notions about individual members of a group based on misinformation or erroneous observations. Discrimination is a deliberate act, based on prejudice, perpetrated against members of a group. Once ageism received a name, scholars began to describe its various societal manifestations, concentrating their research on its harmful instances. Nevertheless, ageism also has a positive dimension, one which views older adults and aging in a strictly favorable light. Both views, of course, may result in misrepresentations and stereotypes about older adults.

Even though most definitions of ageism focus on its negative properties, one definition captures the duality of this term. Erdman B. Palmore defines this concept simply and accurately as "any prejudice or discrimination against or in favor of an age group" (Palmore, p. 4). Because most discussions of ageism focus solely on the negative aspects of this practice, Palmore's definition is preferable because of its balance. Palmore rightly points out that ageist prejudice and discrimination may be either negative or positive.

Language, or words, constitute an intermediate point between an attitude and an act. In this sense, the words chosen by an individual provide a strong indication about that person's beliefs, and possibly actions, towards members of an identifiable group. Just as words have the power to harm or to heal people, ageist vocabulary may also have the same effect. As we shall see, the vocabulary alluding to older people is largely negative, hence its potential to harm is far more significant.

Addressed here are the following aspects of language about aging: (1) an appropriate name for older adults; (2) the vocabulary about older adults and aging; (3) metaphoric language; (4) proverbial language; (5) slogans; and (6) names and forms of address.

Designations for older adults

The appropriate designation for people who are older has been a debatable issue. A 1979 Harris Poll conducted for the National Council on the Aging provided a list of ten terms (aged person, elderly person, golden ager, mature American, middle-aged person, old man/old woman, old timer, older American, retired person, senior citizen ) to determine their acceptability among older adultsdefined as people over the age of sixty-five. The results of this survey indicated that the most liked terms were senior citizen, retired person, and mature American.

In an empirical study of the naming preferences of three separate age groups (1744, 45 64, and 65 and older), Carole A. Barbato and Jerry D. Feezel examined the reactions of members of each group to the following lexical terms for older adults: mature American, retired person, senior citizen, golden ager, old timer, elderly, aged person, old folks, biddy, and fogie. The results of this experiment showed that respondents from all three age groups favored mature American, senior citizen, and retired person. The two oldest groups had a favorable reaction to senior citizen and mature American. The youngest group of respondents liked elder, but only one positive response for this term occurred in the other two age groups. The other three preferred terms, in order of preference, were retired person, golden ager, and elderly.

In their discussion of the results of this study, published in the Gerontologist, Barbato and Feezel note that Frank Nuessel (1982) viewed the term elderly as neutral and nonstereotypic. They point out that this term ranked among the lowest in their study. Nevertheless, in their own examination of the 1984 and 1985 issues of the Gerontologist, elderly was found to be the most frequently used expression. Barbato and Feezel (p. 531) further note that, two years later, Nuessel (1984) believed that elder was a more neutral term. In a response to the Barbato and Feezel article, Nuessel (1987) argues that the imposition of a term on older adults may not be the best approach to this terminological issue. Since naming is a question of self-definition, a group-determined appellation may ultimately be the best solution.

Times, like language, change, and the editors of this volume have avoided the terms the aged and the elderly. In place of the latter, the expressions older adults or elderly persons have been used. This change in preference for terms to refer to older adults is reflected elsewhere, such as in the Thesaurus of Aging Terminology (Diliberti and Eccles, p. 43), where, under the entry "elderly," the reader is advised to use the expression older adults. Under the entry "older adult," the editors state that this phrase has been "assigned routinely to all documents focusing on persons aged 60 and older." Clearly older adult has become the preferred professional term.

Vocabulary about older adults and aging

The vocabulary about aging consists of two basic types. On the one hand, there is the vast array of technical terminology, usually of Greco-Latin origin and generally considered to be neutral or nonageist, that appears in professional publications such as those published by The Gerontological Society of America (i.e., the Gerontologist and the Journals of Gerontology ). Specific examples of professional terminology of Greek origin include: geriatrician, geriatrics, gerontologist, gerontology, geropsychology, gerontophilia, and gerontophobia. Expressions of Latin derivation include the following: sexagenarian, septuagenarian, octogenarian, nonagenarian, and centenarian.

Another group of English words about older adults and aging also exists. These expressions occur in ordinary conversation, and virtually all of them disparage older adults in various ways. Of an extensive vocabulary of perhaps 450,000 words, a relatively small, though frequently used, number of these lexical items refer to aging and older adults. Two studies on the vocabulary of ageist language have documented some of the most common ageist expressions. Both of these studies (Nuessel 1982, 1984) found that the popular vocabulary for older adults is largely negative. Despite the abundance of disparaging expressions for older adults, however, there are a few favorable terms used to allude to older adults, such as mature, mellow, sage, venerable, veteran, and wise. Although the adjective old generally bears a negative connotation when applied to people, it has a positive sense when applied to objects such as brandy, wine, cheese, lace, and wood. It is perhaps reflective of our society that old things possess more value than old people. The deprecating verbiage for older adults and their attributes, however, far surpasses the relatively few positive words.

Language may be spontaneous (e.g., the words employed in everyday speech), or it may be deliberate and calculated (e.g., word used in the print media, including greeting cards, newspapers, magazines, books, and cartoonsor in the nonprint media, such as television shows, movies, music videos, video games, and song lyrics). The source of most nonprint media language derives from an original script, so there is ultimately a written source for visual and auditory media. Negative linguistic ageism may manifest itself in different ways. In discourse or in writing, ageist language may be explicit and blunt. Some individuals automatically refer to older adults in terms of preconceived notions about them. Such notions include distortion, which is the attribution of negative physical, behavioral, and mental traits to older adults (i.e., toothless, grumpy, senile ); and degradation, which alludes to the practice of portraying older adults as physically obnoxious or intellectually inferior (i.e., decrepit, foolish ).

Scripted material is a major source of calculated caricatures of older adults and old age. The birthday card provides the most ubiquitous example. A visit to any card shop provides numerous examples of this verbal depiction of older adults and old age. Humorous cards about old age frequently allude to its negative characteristics, which are reflected in the language, such as allusions to such caricatures as the dirty old man often also reflected in unflattering line drawings. Many of the verbal allusions in these cards relate to behavior (cranky, silly ) or physical appearance and demeanor (rumpled, shriveled ).

In plays, stage directions provide actors with the author's visual and mental conceptualization of various characters. This interlinear commentary frequently alludes to the nonverbal behavior of the character to be portrayed, especially older adults. Words alluding to the kinesic behavior, or the significant bodily movements, of an older character may include expressions such as teetering, unstable, and so forth. Other vocabulary items that refer to paralanguage, or how something is said, are often associated with older characters, including verbs like mumble and mutter. Other stage directions for older characters that reflect their stereotypic conceptualization by the author involve words that refer to manifestations of physical problems, such as drool and totter. Additional verbal descriptions may appear as verb phrases referring to certain problems associated with old age, including to cup one's ear to indicate a hearing deficit or to squint to signal a visual problem. Samuel Beckett's one dramatic piece Krapp's Last Tape, for example, describes the protagonist in the following terms as "very nearsighted" and "hard-of-hearing" (p. 9). The author uses specific kinesic verbs such as "fumble" (p. 10) to signify the character's lack of agility, and the phrase "cup the ear" (p. 13) to allude to the character's hearing impairment. The paralinguistic expression "fit of coughing" (p. 17) stands for his poor health.

Certain negative descriptive adjectives frequently refer to older adults. These descriptors fall into specific categories: (1) physical appearance (decrepit, frumpy, wrinkled ); (2) behavioral patterns (crotchety, fussy, garrulous, grouchy, grumpy, miserly ); (3) physical ability (debilitated, feeble, infirm, rickety ); and (4) mental ability (doddering, eccentric, feebleminded, foolish, rambling, senile ). A selected listing of terminology used to refer to older adults and aging appears in Table 1.

Metaphoric language

In traditional literary analysis, a metaphor is a figure of speech or a linguistic adornment intended to enhance the expressive qualities of a text. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980), however, have shown that metaphoric language constitutes a way of viewing the world that directly influences people's perception of it. A metaphor is an implied comparison, and it has the form A = B (e.g., "John is a snake." Here, the hearer has to fill in certain information generally known about the appearance and behavior of a snake). In this sense, a metaphor describes the unknown in terms of the known. Metaphors are thus powerful cognitive devices, since they allow one dimension of the world to shape another. Thus, metaphors function as a linguistic mechanism that selects and filters certain aspects of the real world and projects these dimensions onto other parts of it. In this constructivist view of metaphor, one in which language shapes our perceptions of reality, a decidedly negative view of older adults and old age emerges. One common geriatric metaphor is OLD AGE IS TERMINAL DECLINE. This conceptual metaphor may produce a negative ageist view of older adults because it considers old age to be a period of deterioration and decadence. This perspective may thus facilitate medical undertreatment of older adults because of its erroneous view of old age as one of irreversible degeneration.

A subcategory of metaphor is metonymy (the use of the part for the whole). Within health care settings, metonymy is a common way to allude to older adults; the use of such expressions as the sick heart, the broken hip, or the cancerous liver are examples. In some respects, these references underlie Western medicine's belief that the human body is a mechanism with replaceable or repairable parts.

Proverbial language

Many dictionaries define proverbs as brief, fixed popular sayings that state a commonly held belief. A study of seventy-two Italian proverbs about aging and older people (Nuessel 2000a, p.312) found that thirty-nine were positive, thirty were negative, and three were ambiguous in their interpretation. In their thematically arranged dictionary of American proverbs, Mieder, Kingsbury and Harder (1992, pp. 12 13, 437438) include ninety-eight proverbs and variants under the rubrics age, aged, and old. Of these, seventy-five depict old age in a negative fashion, while twenty-three offer a positive view. Proverbs such as "nature abhors the old" and "there is no fool like an old fool" reflect the negative perspective in proverbial language, while "with age comes wisdom" and "old foxes are not easily caught" express the positive viewpoint.


Related to proverbial language is the slogana memorable, fixed catchphrase intended to advance some cause. The ubiquitous bumper sticker is one of the most common manifestations of this linguistic form. Some of the better known examples of slogans have a positive reference, including "age is just a number" and "older is bolder." These slogans often affirm old age and older adults.

Names and forms of address

In interpersonal communication, forms of address and names define social relationships. The use of a person's first name indicates a close, long-standing relationship, hence the expression "to be on a first name basis." Nevertheless, there are circumstances in which the use of an appropriate title (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Doctor, etc.) and surname is necessary because of the formal nature of the discourse; these include job interviews, initial contact with a person, and so forth. This use of forms of address and personal names, though not formalized, derives from implicit rules of discourse that set the stage for ongoing social relationships. Their use thus reveals much about personal associations (e.g., the use of a formal form of address by one conversational participant and an informal one by the other signals the dominant and subordinate speaker). The inappropriate use of forms of address and names may have the effect of infantilizing older adults. Such patronizing and demeaning usage often occurs in health care and geriatric facilities.

Negative linguistic ageism frequently manifests itself in the names and in the forms of address used with older adults. This sort of language behavior is a verbal indication of the infantilizing process. There are five common examples of this subtle form of linguistic abuse. The first one involves the use of an older adult's first name, especially by a younger person, without first asking permission to do so. This tactic immediately establishes power relationships in a conversation. It should be noted, however, that there is a tendency in contemporary U.S. society to use a person's name without seeking permission though many older adults are not accustomed to this practice. Second, the use of diminutive forms of first names, such as Johnny or Annie, with older individuals is a more degrading usage than using the first namethese are forms that are generally reserved for speaking with small children. A third example involves the inappropriate use of terms of affection and endearment (dear, honey, poor dear, good girl, good boy ) by people who have no claim to their use. Diminutive forms (dearie, sweetie ) of these words only add to this infantilizing humiliation. A fourth example of names used with older people includes such generic names as gramps or granny, which are frequently employed by small children with their older relatives. The fifth form of this kind of linguistic ageism is anonymity. Not using the name of an older person at all marks them as nonentities whose worth is negligible. Two additional examples of linguistic ageism that often take place in health care environments involve pronominal forms. In the first instance, a third person pronominal reference (he, she) is used in the presence of the person being spoken about as if they were unworthy of conversational inclusion (e.g., "he's having a bad day"). A second instance involves the use of the first-person plural pronoun (we) as a subordinating communicative act, such as in the expression "How are we doing today?" It is clear in this usage that there is no sense of solidarity with the older person.

Frank Nuessel

See also Age Discrimination; Images of Aging; Literature and Aging; Social Cognition.


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Language about Aging

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