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Language about Aging

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 cartoons—or 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.

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