Old woman or little old lady? Ageist language lurks everywhere

Am I an old woman or a little old lady? How can we avoid ageist language when every word for old is deeply contaminated with ageism? Ageist language lurks everywhere, waiting to pounce.

Below are two photos, one of my grandmother long ago and one of Judi Dench in Cranford. Which one is an old woman? Which one is a little old lady?

Two photos about ageist language. One shows a mature woman in a dark coat and hat carrying gloves and a black handbag. The other shows a mature woman in an old fashioned bonnet trimmed with lace and tied with a ribbon, and a dainty pale blue flowered dress with a lace collar. She is carrying a basket of strawberries.
Which of these two females is a little old lady and which is an old woman? Beware ageist language!

Without another thought, you labelled them—or did you? In the alt-text I wrote:

Two photos. One shows a mature woman in a dark coat and hat carrying gloves and a black handbag. The other shows a mature woman in an old fashioned bonnet trimmed with lace and tied with a ribbon, and a dainty pale blue flowered dress with a lace collar. She is carrying a basket of strawberries.


Finding an appropriate term for us old people is fraught with horrors. There is no preferred term for “old person” because of our fear of old age. Even the euphemisms make people shudder: they (we) don’t want to think of ourselves as old, that’s why. Seniors, elderly, older—no, no and no. Anti-ageist writers invent their own neologisms, for example an ager or an older but they have not caught on. If a word means old, it means old, and people don’t like it.

What’s wrong with the phrase little old lady?

So what’s wrong with being called a little old lady? I love the Hoagy Carmichael song and am ironically croaking and dancing to it as I prepare a talk for Amity Club in Wellington tomorrow. Which is why I took another look at the phrase.

  • What’s wrong with calling someone little? We use that word all the time to suggest that a (female) person is cute and lovable and non-threatening. Little one. OK. No need to chuck that one out, all you lovers and parents. But little woman?—yech.
  • What’s wrong with calling someone a lady? Who’s a lady, outside of poncy English society? Nobody in New Zealand and not me! And again it’s supposed to be flattering but in the 21st century it’s meaningless and undemocratic, stressing social status as a measure of our worth.
  • What’s wrong with being called old? Nothing, in theory, if it’s true. You can’t offend me by using this truthful word, because I’m 81: that passes as old. But, as I said, nobody wants to be called old. Little and lady just dress up the unacceptable. So I use this word old freely about myself and cautiously with other people.

What’s wrong with the phrase old woman?

Nothing, if you are one. Nothing, unless you’re super-sensitive and feel offended by the truth. Which is only human nature when it comes to age!

I got to meet and get to know my own old woman. By which I mean the old woman hiding inside my pretend-middle-aged woman). It was the result of my baby-bootie camp for the bonus years. My own hidden ageism jumped out at me yelling and screaming. Only when I saw it—my prejudice against old women and men despite being an old woman myself—was I able to tackle it.

Ageism is only human

It’s perhaps not surprising that ageist language persists long after sexist and racist language have been called out. According to a new UN report on the topic:

Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes– leading to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons, costing societies billions of dollars each year


Every second person? That means you—but not you—and you—but not you—and ME! So when my self-proclaimed freedom from ageist language has an occasional relapse I’m not cross with myself, just disappointed. I try but I’m only human. I’m an old woman. Which is cool.

23 thoughts on “Old woman or little old lady? Ageist language lurks everywhere

  1. cedar51 says:

    Interesting dialogue…

    I remember seeing a news report of “elderly lady of 49…” (I wonder what the editor’s age was). I see myself as “mature person” and I quite like when an unknown retail asst says “how can I help you Ma’m” It makes me feel like they see me as a mature woman.

    I fool a lot of unknown people as I do not look my age, and I’ve had some hilarious chats with people who can’t understand why I have an AT-Hop Gold Card (I’m in Auckland), or I’m trying to buy in to the Seniors rate!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Sounds like you have some fun there. Glad to hear it!

  2. toutparmoi says:

    Yes – I own “old woman” too. Not by any stretch of the imagination am I young – and anyway, when I was young I was more often miserable than not. Nor am I middle-aged. I even derive pleasure from adding the adjectives “grumpy” or “mad” to “old woman” – I find that truly liberating. I’m still too tall to be called “little” – but I’m not quite as tall as I used to be. That’s irksome, but not as irksome as other signs of decrepitude are.
    So am I free from ageism? Alas, no. I need to keep working on it.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Personalizing your own label is an act of power. Bring it on!

  3. realruth says:

    I’m happy to be a crone.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That is a good word. Not all old women are crones though, are they? Or are they.

      1. realruth says:

        Fifty-six is the magic age, when any woman can become a crone.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        That seems so young. But it’s great to find a word that fits.

  4. I have to keep reminding myself I am old. But more & more the reality sets in as the response of others to me as a person sets the bar. “Are you okay going down the steps/” I was asked as I was about to board a plane the other day. My younger travelling pals were most amused – but at the same time outraged on my behalf! Clearly they didn’t see me as ‘old’ but the airport person did. The fact that we should see people for what they are under any outward appearances is a point most of us humans miss. We shouldn’t label people, but it seems to be inherent to our basic natures. Maybe it’s a safeguard which we’ve inherited from the cave – we need to be able to identify stuff in order to take any necessary precautions. Old people = no threat. Therefore, dismiss. Old person = frailty. Therefore, aid required.
    I do appreciate your reminders and insights, Rachel. Age is just a number – this maybe a cliche, but people like you make that the perfect response.

  5. anne leueen says:

    I enjoyed this post. I am an “old” woman at 72 but I’ll be damned if I will accept being called a “little old lady”. In some cultures older people are referred to as “elders”. In my mind, I always see this as a term of respect as if an Elder may have knowledge that a younger person does not. However the term “elderly” implies weakness and fragility. You have got me thinking with this topic Rachel!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Anne. Thumbs up! I think you are a elder. But are all old people elders? If not, I feel uncomfortable about the label for myself.

  6. Margy says:

    Just wondering why we would need to use an age descriptor at all. How about just saying “a woman in a dark coat and hat carrying gloves and a black handbag”.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Nice one, Margy! I think reporters are obliged to include at least a hint about age of their subjects. Is that correct?

      1. Margy says:

        One writing style guide I saw said if you indicate age you use the number that says how old they are. I don’t know if all style guides for all publications say that.

  7. Mick Canning says:

    I am old, yes. I can’t imagine why I’d be offended as being described that way, unless some unpleasant adjective was tacked onto that.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So Donald Trump objected to being called “old” and a “dotard” by Kim Jong Un but didn’t mind being called “deranged” or a “lunatic”. I found that fascinating.

      1. Mick Canning says:

        Trump is an exception to every rule.

  8. Very well said. Little is possibly the most objectionable in my mind, because it seems to relate to status rather than stature.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Exactly. So patronizing.

  9. Thought provoking as always Rachel. I always enjoy greeting elderly folk as “young man” or “young lady”, or “Sir” or “Madam” and am quite surprised when anyone offers to help me do anything. For a few years I worked for Methodist Homes for the Aged. When I first started, Aged was pronounced Age – ed. It then changed to Aged, then just became Methodist Homes, then MHA. Our residents were referred to as old people, then older people, then elderly, then living in later life. Me? I’m just an old fogie who is really young inside!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s funny: I hate being called “young woman” — unless by a friend or relative. Old fogie has a fine ring to it.

  10. Cathy Cade says:

    We’re officially oldies now (a rock group, maybe?).
    No disguising it with euphemisms like ‘mature’ (like fine wine or smelly cheese).
    I think I marginally prefer ‘oldies’ to ‘wrinklies’ – it’s more inclusive and includes those trying to reverse the clock.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s been a powerful act when a group takes an offensive label and turns it around, claiming it for their own proud use. maybe that’s what I’m trying to do here.

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