Who You Calling ‘Young Lady’?
And other ageist language that needs to change — now
Except for a few incredibly insensitive jerks, most of us are increasingly careful to avoid using hurtful language toward people different than us. This is a good thing. Why use hurtful language? It hurts.
Still, even now, lots of people still say insensitive things toward the aging community. For instance, simply saying, “You know Jack? He’s old,” kind of sounds demeaning.
So, what do you say? Don’t worry, we’re here to help. Here is a glossary of the cool, not cool and just plain mean words that are often used to describe older people. Keep it handy.
“Older” — interesting how that little “er” qualifier makes the adjective “old” sound inoffensive. After all, everyone is older than someone.
“Experienced" — They may not know HTML or Snapchat, but an older person is unquestionably more experienced at staying alive on this increasingly insane planet. Just think: People older than you knew how to get across town without a GPS. That’s how experienced they are.
“Wise” — Certainly, this word doesn’t apply to everyone. (For proof, please visit Twitter.) But for the right individual, this is a classy way to hint at age while also honoring intellect. A respectful, slight bow of the head is a nice added touch.
“Seasoned” — This adjective hints that one has not only lived through many summers and winters, but also has been well rubbed with the spice of life on his or her journey. It indicates a human with a complex flavor profile.
“Sage” or “wizard” — If you have lived past 45, are a halfway decent person and not cruel or mean, then yes, you are magical.
“Mature” — This implies advanced emotional development and is an acceptable term as long as you don’t pronounce it with a hard T, as in “Ma-TOUR.” Then, it just sounds like Madonna trying to do Shakespeare. Please don’t make us think about that!
“Perennial” — Somehow, describing people as plants feels respectable. Evokes images of thick leaves and fleshy blossoms. Like many older people, perennials possess the two most-coveted qualities in plant or animal — they are gorgeous and hard to kill.
“Ageless” — The Isabella Rossellini of appellations. The ageless person perpetually exists in a liminal state where time is irrelevant. Please call us this.
“Vintage” — Sexy, coveted and expensive. A Pucci dress, a Jaguar E-Type. It becomes more valuable as it gets older and is revered and passionately pursued by those of all ages who are truly in the know.
“Distinguished” — Usually used to describe a man with a little silver in his hair and on his shirt cuffs. It conveys dignity, authority and a healthy investment portfolio. Let’s start using this word for women, too, shall we? After all, who could be more distinguished than Dame Judi Dench? (We will accept “Dame Maggie Smith” as an answer.)
Honorific words from other countries — lao shi, sensei, abuelo/a
“Young” (used playfully) — An infantilizing attempt at jocularity by someone actually young. Example: A waiter greets a table of septuagenarians with “How are you YOUNG ladies doing today?” Not good. You may be too young to know this, but there is nothing wrong with not being young. Now refill our decaf coffees!
“Of a certain age” — Oooh, mysterious! Spooky! A number so scary that it can’t be said out loud, lest it conjure evil spirits
“Elderly” — Let’s reserve this word for the over-95 set, please.
“Adorable” — Puppies are adorable. We’re adults. The fact that we are interesting or funny does not render us infantile. Save this word for baby goats. You can also feed them “sweetie,” “honey” and “dear.”
“Over the hill” — Kid, no one knows what “the hill” is or what side of it any of us is on. Kindly reserve this term to estimate your location when we are a half mile ahead of you on a hike or in an intellectual conversation.
“Cougar/GILF” — Guess what? Older people have sex. There is no need to distinguish our sexuality from that of 23-year-old Instagram models. The sooner you embrace this, the better (and longer) your own sex life will be. Swipe right!
Just Plain Mean
“Dried up” — Must a person be described by the volume of fluids they produce? OK, you leaky, oily squirt.
“Little old lady” — You are making an older woman sound frail and weak when saying this. But think about it: According to research, shorter women live longer than tall women, and women live longer than men. Ergo, shorter women have way more staying power than anyone!
“Grumpy old man” — Aging presents frustrating challenges, especially in our youth-oriented, pouty selfie-snapping culture. Maybe they’re not grumpy; maybe you are just being irritating. Get off their damn lawn already!
“Grandma” or “Grandpa” — Don’t use such nicknames for people whose reproductive history you do not know. Also, lots more grandmothers don’t want to be called “Grandma” anymore. Trending now: Glam-ma, Mimi, even Nana. (It should go without saying that “Granny” is worst of all.)
“Geriatric” — Anything that references hospitals or medical facilities should be avoided. People aren’t decaying in front of you.
“Old Coot” — What is a coot? Is it an insect? A toothy rodent? A weird skin growth? Do you even know what you’re calling us? Fun fact: A coot is a tough, adaptable water bird. They can fly and swim. Can you?
Send your examples for ageist or age-empowering language to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike Albo and Amanda Duarte are seasoned writers who have written together for the New Yorker, Town and Country, BuzzFeed and the Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.