Language is a minefield – one that newspapers walk through every day. There are words that were once in common use that we should all be thankful have been consigned to history – I’m not going to list them here, but some may have immediately jumped to mind!
However, while avoiding being offensive, you can stray too far down the path of euphemism – as a journalist I personally struggle with ‘differently abled’ and prefer plain old ‘died’ to passed away. That could be a family thing. When we were packing up my father’s possessions, we found a trunk that had a note on the lid: “If you’re opening this, I have not passed on, over or through. I am dead.”
The most recent term that some would like to scrub from the language is ‘elderly’. A recent article in the NZ Listener quotes Age Concern’s chief executive, Stephanie Clare, as saying the word implies frailty and conjures up an image of someone using a walker. ‘Older people’ or ‘older adults’ are the preferred PC terms.
We have used ‘elderly’ as a descriptive in this paper (along with older people) but Age Concern’s view gives me cause for doubt. One dictionary definition is simply ‘an old or ageing person’. Another says it is ‘a polite way of saying old’. Perhaps, therefore, ‘elderly’ has been a respectful term – your elders, after all, were by implication also your betters! Yet now, it is seen as the exact opposite – judgmental and demeaning. Although I could not find ‘elderly’ defined as fragile or frail, maybe Stephanie Clare is right, and that’s what the word brings to mind?
A minefield, and an ever-changing one, as I said.
It is true that the term can be used to describe anyone aged 65-105 – and perhaps that’s the issue. Maybe it should be used only when it suits the individuals being described?
As I consider whether or not to delete this word from my vocabulary, I would like to know what you, the readers, (of all ages) think. Do you find ‘elderly’ an offensive, ageist word – or not? If someone refers to you or your relatives/friends that way, does it make you cringe? It may have to go, but let’s be certain before we give it the boot.