Friday, February 13, 2009

Super-sexagenarian Americans

Jane Gross at the New York Times tells of a new style guide from the International Longevity Center and the Aging Services of California that is designed to guide people in the media through the maze of ageist language. Apparently, there are very few terms left to refer to someone who has exceeded six-and-a-half decades that aren't somehow inherently ageist. At least according to these people.

Even the seemingly neutral word elderly should "be used carefully and sparingly" and only to refer to a group of people — "corralling the elderly like lost sheep" — and not to a specific person — "the elderly woman who rear-ended me."

Also on the verboten list: senior citizen, the golden years, feisty, spry, and grandmotherly, along with the more obvious words that you would never use around an *old person who has no sense of humor about himself — codger, coot, crone, geezer, etc. One should also take care when referring to institutions that care for the elderly.

To quote from one of the comments to the article that I agree with, "Unlike some of the other [racist and sexist] terms, elderly offensiveness makes sense mostly in the context of a culture that is ashamed of accepting age." Calling someone "elderly" can be considered a derogatory term only in a society that thinks there's something bad about being old. Calling a woman a hottie in a news article is obviously derogatory because it objectifies her, making her a sexual object instead of an individual. Not so with elderly. Calling an old person elderly shouldn't be any more politically incorrect than calling a woman a female or black man black. Sure, it points out a specific characteristic of a person — but that is often necessary depending on what you're trying to say — but it does so in a neutral, sterile way.

I just don't get it. Shouldn't this just be a matter of common sense? Certainly there is ageism going on out there, but this style guide isn't designed to help curb that. Sure, watching your language when you write is important — you don't want to piss off your audience — but how do you get a whole book out of it without either a lot of blank space or a lot of bunkum? This should be a healthy-sized essay at most.