Article in Justice of the Peace
169 JP (18 Jun 2005) 473
||Doc. No. 2005.037
'Don’t Call the Old “Older”',
For a change, my subject this time is not law but
political correctness. The excuse is that this is a topic that afflicts our legal
system today as it afflicts pretty well everything else. Law depends on words,
and the correct use of words. This is now crippled and distorted by the vice
of political correctness, under which language is changed to spare people’s
feelings – in the course of which many people’s feelings are outraged.
Among them mine.
The feelings of outrage which originally prompted
this article were revived by a pamphlet just issued by the charity Help the Aged
under the title Dying in older age: reflections and experiences from an older
person’s perspective. So we don’t have that respectable thing
old age any more, we have older age. Thus is our marvellous English language
distorted by cranks.
On June 1 the Thought for the Day item on BBC Radio
Four was contributed by Rev. Joel Edwards, General Director
of the Evangelical Alliance UK. He began by mentioning the Help the Aged pamphlet,
using its full title. I was delighted to note that for the rest of his piece
he talked about old age, not older age. Thus he avoided sounding ridiculous.
But what does that say about Help the Aged and those running it?
It is dismal to record that nearly everyone seems to be a crank of this sort nowadays. As a specialist
in the use of English I am asking for a halt to be called to this particular nonsense about
old people. It extends not just to the use of “older”, but to the general treatment
of senior citizens.
Rubbish about road signs
I am what a young relative calls an “octogeranium”.
My wife Mary and I have a combined age of 160 years. We are both fond of that warning
traffic sign which depicts an obviously-devoted, hunched old couple tremulously crossing
the road. We think of it as “our” sign, and giggle when we see it.
An article in the British Medical Association Journal presents
a different view of this much-loved sign.
“ It portrays a silhouette of a man with a
flexed posture using a cane and leading a kyphotic woman. The same sign is also used
for frail, disabled, or blind people, even though many of these people are not old. The
sign implies that osteopaenic vertebral collapse and the need for mobility aids are to
be expected with physical disability as well as with advancing age.”
Well aren’t these unfortunate things to be expected,
in some people at least? They are certainly a clear indication of frailty, and the need
for drivers to take care when old folk may be in the vicinity. In other words the sign
serves its purpose, and does its job. What more can one ask? That is what the schoolchildren
who designed it thought, when they won a 1981 competition by doing that.
The four authors of the BMA article take a different view.
They say elderly people should not be stigmatised as being impaired or inevitably disabled.
Here is the dread voice of political correctness, sounding especially inappropriate in
the mouths of doctors. It postulates that it is a stigma to be shown as having
osteopaenic vertebral collapse, instead of that being a misfortune some people just happen
to suffer from. The OED2 defines a stigma as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a sign
of severe censure or condemnation”. It is ridiculous to use that extreme term in
this connection. The four doctors should be ashamed of themselves.
They should also be ashamed for wasting public time and money in an elaborate and futile research project
to find out what road signs other countries use for this purpose. They discovered that of the 118
countries for which they obtained information (think of the expense that involved), only 35 had a
road traffic sign featuring one or more of the elderly, blind, deaf, or disabled categories. So what.
Abolishing the old
I return to the nonsense I began with, the politically correct
urge to say “older” rather than “old”. Here I would like to pay
a limited tribute to Mr Gordon Lishman OBE, Director
General of Age Concern England. I recently wrote the following to Mr Lishman, who had
sent me a letter appealing for funds.
“ I have received a circular letter from you
(which I enclose) addressing me as ‘Dear Friend’. This is irritating as I
am not your friend. So far as I am aware, we have never been introduced. Even more irritating
is the fact that your letter refers in no less than seven places to “older people”.
The word “older” is a comparative adjective, referring to a person or thing
that has been in existence longer than a named comparative. Thus a child of three is
older than a child of two. There is no comparative named in your letter, so I am at a
loss to know what you mean by an “older” person. Older than what?
Of course I know that you mean an old person, but
don’t like to say so. At the age of eighty-two I freely admit to being an old person.
Why shouldn’t I? It’s the truth. There is a tendency nowadays to avoid the
truth for fear of hurting somebody’s feelings. This is pernicious, and I will have
nothing to do with it. Therefore I shall not be responding to your appeal.”
This was a thoroughly cranky letter, typical of an octogenarian
lawyer well past his sell-by date. Mr Gordon
Lishman, the chief executive of a large national charity,
must be a busy man. I would not have been surprised if he had ignored my cranky letter,
or it had been filtered out without reaching him by officious subordinates. This did
not happen. Instead Mr Lishman sent a patient and courteous reply (Of course it’s
his business to cope with cranky old fogies: you might say it’s what he is paid
“ I see you disliked us addressing you as ‘Dear
Friend’; I am sorry for the annoyance this caused. Whilst we personalise the survey
for delivery purposes, in order that we keep costs as low as possible we were unable
to personalise the letter. If you could let us know of a term that you feel is more acceptable,
we will certainly consider any suggestions.
With regards to Age Concern using the term ‘older’ rather
than ‘old’, the latter term has been found offensive by some people as it
is felt that it implies a certain state of health; that a person is old and therefore
not able to partake in activities, events etc. Many people who are in their, for example,
seventies or eighties can be as healthy as someone in their forties and it is strongly
felt that people should not be categorised by their age as we would not categorise people
by the [sic] gender or race. In this way the term older has been used to avoid stereotyping
I hope this explanation has been helpful as to the
reasons why we have used certain terminology in our appeals. Once again, I am sorry for
the annoyance and inconvenience caused this was certainly not our intention.
Pp Gordon Lishman
No, I refuse to cavil because Mr Lishman did not sign the
letter personally. And I have not been able to think of an address term that is more
acceptable from a complete stranger than “Dear friend”, even though it denigrates
the nobility of true friendship. In the old days one would have said “Dear Sir
or Madam”, but that is now regarded as too formal. Today we must have first names
and friendship before we have even been introduced. I know which I prefer.
I come to the gist of Mr Lishman’s letter. He justifies
calling me an “older” person rather than an “old” person (which
is truly what I am) on grounds that are nonsense. Calling a person “old” does
nothing more than indicate that he or she has reached advanced years in life. It says
nothing whatever about their quality of life, state of health, condition of being ga-ga
or otherwise, or anything else. If the term has been found offensive by some prickly
idiots then those people should have been told to go away and do something useful with
their remaining time on earth instead of annoying sensible folk with silly and crotchety
points that have no substance whatever. Instead of that, because so many people take
notice and act accordingly, the idiots are in effect changing the English language with
their irritating nonsense.
Then there is that statement that it is strongly felt that
people should not be categorised by their age as we would not categorise people by gender
or race. This too is the most absurd example of political correctness. There are males
and females in this world. We are not going to abandon simple pronouns like he and she
because they categorise people as one or the other. Similarly with race. It is not yet
regarded even by extremists as improper to describe a person as French or African.
As for stereotyping, it no more stereotypes people to call
them old than it does to call them young. Here the following comment by the anthropologist Kate
Fox, daughter of the famous anthropologist Robin Fox, is relevant.
“‘ Well, I hope you’re going to
get beyond the usual stereotypes’ was [a] common response when I told people I
was doing research for a book on Englishness. This comment seemed to reflect an assumption
that a stereotype is almost by definition ‘not true’, and that the truth
lies somewhere else – wherever ‘beyond’ might be. I find this rather
strange, as I would naturally assume that, although not necessarily ‘the truth,
the whole truth, and nothing but’ stereotypes about English national character
probably contain at least a grain or two of truth. They do not, after all, just come
out of thin air, but must have germinated and grown from something.’
Fox, Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour (Hodder, 2004) p. 22
(emphasis in original).