MIND YOUR LANGUAGE! The Problem with an Ageing Vocabulary.

Sure, I’d been in trouble before. Like when I broke a cupboard door riding my skateboard in the kitchen. Or the time I got caught forging my Mum’s signature on a note explaining my absence from school. So yes, I’ve known trouble.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for my father’s reaction when, on his retirement, I referred to him as a pensioner. Finally, at the ripe old age of 47, I understood the true meaning of “trouble”.


Sitting on the naughty step, I reflected on my behaviour – well, my language to be precise. What would be a more appropriate word or term to describe my father than “Pensioner”? Fortunately my Smartphone hadn’t been confiscated, so I opened the Thesaurus and went to work.

Elderly? No… Ancient, Long in the tooth, Old fogey? Absolutely not… Senior Citizen, Over the hill, Fossil? This is bad… Infirm, Enfeebled, Grizzled…? Really, that’s it? The language of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, and E.L. James has nothing more positive to offer? An old car is a “Classic”, our used clothes “Vintage”, and our worn furniture “Retro” yet the best we can come up with for the people who clothed us, fed us, taught us right from wrong, and probably paid the deposit on our first flat is “Geriatric”? The only thing a retro sofa ever did for me was steal my pens and small change. No wonder Dad was less than pleased at retiring.
“My parents are retired but…, but… they’re not “OLD”, they’re still really young for their age, you know, socialising, living life to the full…”
God, I sound like a White House Press Secretary trying to excuse Donald Trump’s latest outrage (although I think they’ve given up on that now). But, you know what? It’s not my fault. I am just a victim; a victim of a limited and lazy vocabulary. Perhaps we should strive to be more like the indigenous people of the Northern Polar Region. (If only we had an inoffensive word to call this group…) Now there is a people committed to vocabulary. Depending on who you talk to, the inhabitants of the Northern Polar Region have anywhere from 40 to 180 words or terms to describe snow. According to David Robson in New Scientist, “the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti”, for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak”, for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt”. I think we can all agree, snow must be pretty important to them…
The Oxford English Dictionary recently added 1000 words and terms to its vast library. These included YOLO (an acronym for You Only Live Once), Yogalates (a combination of Yoga and Pilates) and Moobs (a term for unusually prominent breasts on a man). Moobs is my personal favourite, as I know my poor friends and colleagues have long searched for a word to describe that specific part of my anatomy. The OED employ a crack team of 15 that work tirelessly, tracking and analysing online databases and public submissions before finally, and proudly updating the dictionary. The announcement of the OED’s “new words” receives coverage not dissimilar to that given a new Aussie Prime Minister – also an annual occurrence. What about words though, that no longer cut the mustard? Words that require updating or even replacement? Of course words like Retired or Pensioner, Superannuated or Elderly will always have their place, but in this day and age they do nothing but marginalise a growing number of people – both physically and psychologically. These are nouns and adjectives that strike fear. And we’re right to be scared of them because like it or not, these words (if we make it to 65) will end up defining us all. Our ageing population is healthier, living longer, and to the delight of advertising executives the world over, spending more. That’s why we have terms like “The Silver Dollar” and “Grey Pound”. What is required now though, is a word or term that evokes both pride and anticipation – pride in everything to have gone before, and anticipation of everything yet to be achieved and experienced. That word doesn’t exist. Yet.