What’s in a Word?

Jul 13, 2020

Felice Rihannon feels strongly about the status and influence of older people in society. As the founder of ElderSpirit, she blogs on the intersectionality between key topics and later life, and embraces spirited ageing.


Words can caress or harm. Words can enlighten or degrade. Our language forms how we think and feel about ourselves and one another and the world. Words make perception and sensation tangible. So how I and other elders, perceive our world is often shaped by the words that are used to define us?

Consider these:
Old fart
Old fogey
Old bag
Old bat

These words, all in common usage, not only insult older people, they lift up those who are younger, and furthers the divide between age groups. They tell us, in no uncertain terms, that old is ‘other’, abnormal, unappealing and less-than.

How about the phrase “You’re only as old as you think you are”? This is a popular lie, one we are taught to believe. the author Ursula K. Le Guin commented in response, “if I’m 90 and believe I’m 45, I’m headed for a very bad time trying to get out of the bathtub.” She also commented, in response to someone telling her, while in her 80s, that she wasn’t old, was like saying the Pope isn’t Catholic.

Image source: Ursula K Guin, from https://litreactor.com/

In many spiritual traditions, the elders were held in high regard, honoured and respected. As conscious elders of the 21st century, we can reclaim the currently unpopular words associated with old age and bring them back to their original meanings. “old”, as a word, used to signify the third part of life, just as “youth” meant the first.

Old age is for ALL of us who live it… the warriors, the fearful, the healthy, the strong, the ill and frail, the cowardly and the courageous. We can claim our full lives and live them with purpose, attention, meaning and love.

This article originally appeared in https://www.elderspirit.co.uk/

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