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?
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.Alt-text
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 yearhttps://www.who.int/news/item/18-03-2021-ageism-is-a-global-challenge-un
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.