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October, 2006

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The senior times, they are a-changin’
The Word Nerd
Howard Richler

Around fifteen years ago I was enjoying a coffee with my mother-in-law who was at the time undergoing the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease: In a reflective moment she asked me, “Howie, tell me. Why do some people refer to old age as the ‘golden years’? Believe me, I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not so ‘golden’. I don’t even like the term ‘senior.’ Why can’t people just admit that old age is old age?”
Unlike my dear mother-in-law, who has since passed away, not everyone is prepared to “call a spade a spade.” Judith S. Neaman & Carole G.Silver state in Kind Words, A Thesaurus of Euphemisms, that “this fear of causing psychic pain, this desire to be well thought of leads us to use ‘kind words’; we prefer to ‘discontinue’ rather than to ‘fire’ employees. In our eagerness to avoid deflating our egos and those of others, we often create euphemisms that inflate them.”
My mother-in-law was not the only relation to me have take umbrage at “kind words.” The year 1999 was designated the International Year of Older People (IYOP) and Flora McDonald, had recently been designated Canada’s IYOP spokesperson. Ms. McDonald stated her desire to help “reduce the fear of aging” and “dispel myths of aging.” This offer prompted my bemused cousin Mordecai Richler to counter that “it’s not aging we fear; but the inevitable alternative…. What myths…? The increasing frequency of the deaths of cherished old friends? Or maybe it’s the canard of the shortening odds against our being stricken by cancer, a heart attack, or a stroke.”
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first usage of “golden ager” to refer to an elderly person was in 1961. Right from the start, however, people were aware, like my mother-in-law, that we were dealing with a new euphemism.
In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote in The Other American; “The brochure writers and the publicists talk of the ‘golden years’ and of ‘senior citizens.’ But these are euphemisms to ease the conscience of the callous.”
Hugh Rawson in his Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk says that the “myth that the golden years are the best years is rooted in the concept of the Golden Age as the first and best of the ages of the world. The Golden Age was supposed to be a time of innocence and happiness, when truth and justice prevailed. Spears and swords had not yet been invented, perpetual spring reigned, and the rivers flowed with milk and wine. Thus, the euphemism completes a metaphorical circle, returning the oldster to the infancy of the species.”
The term “senior citizen” appears to have been coined as a euphemism for “old person” during a 1938 American political campaign. Eventually, the term was shortened to “senior,” a term that until then was used strictly to refer to those in a graduating class.
Neaman and Silver state in Kind Words that “mankind’s desire to forget the process of aging that leads inevitably to death” is the source of terms that try “to strip death of both its sting and its pride.” This has led to some colorful circumlocutions such as “resting in Abraham’s bosom”, “cashing in one’s chips”, “counting daisies”, “headin’ for the last roundup”, “giving up the ghost”,“paying Saint Peter a visit.” and “kicking the bucket.” Neiman and Silver say that “the terms change and the euphemisms grow, but the evasion of the word ‘death’ survives.”
Increasingly, the word “senior” is being referenced dysphemistically. The term “senior moment” is being used increasingly to describe a temporary loss of memory or attention caused by advancing old age. If the sense of the word “senior” declines further, it will have to be replaced by fresher euphemisms to describe old age. I’ll offer two possibilities: The “über mature” and “polygenarians”
I charge The Senior Times readers with the task of unearthing a new term to describe the aged. Send your suggestions to me at hrichler@canada.com or mail to editor@theseniortimes.com.
Who knows? Maybe it could lead to a new name for the newspaper. Frankly, I don’t know what the fuss is all about. I’m with Woody Allen on this issue. He said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

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