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Language about Aging

Designations For Older Adults, Vocabulary About Older Adults And Aging, Metaphoric Language, Proverbial LanguageSlogans

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.

Related to proverbial language is the slogan—a 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.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 3