The new linguistics war heats up and deals with our aging population | Style | -- Your State. Your News.

Jul 01st
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The new linguistics war heats up and deals with our aging population

mediatakesonaging_optBY PAT SUMMERS

Yesterday’s war against sexist language – the figuratively bloody battles over the “generic he,” the misuse of “girl,” the exclusionary words like chairman and statesman, the rise of “Ms.” – may have trained a corps of veterans for a new linguistic campaign that’s heating up today.

Those women who, starting in the ‘70s, fought the good feminist fight against words that trivialized them or their work, routinely treated them as subservient to men and sometimes simply ignored their existence ... are probably just the right age now for the next battle.


That would be against “ageist language.” And don’t laugh it off till you realize that every day 12,000 boomers turn 62, and you consider how you would like the following:
  • Being referred to as a “senior” or a senior citizen” for the rest of your life.
  • Being the recipient of “over the hill” jokes and products for the rest of your life.
  • Being described as a grandmother or grandfather as if that were your only accomplishment in life.
  • Being assumed to be retired when you’re not (and don’t want to be).
  • Being treated as though you’re infirm in body and/or mind solely because of your age.

Years ago, sexist language was demonstrated to be invidious in surprising ways. For instance, children, who take language literally, assumed that only men could be “mailmen” or “policemen” or hold other jobs with a “man” suffix. This assumption limited career aspirations, especially those of girls.

The solution then was changing EXclusionary job titles to INclusionary ones: police officer, mail carrier, and so on. On the other side of the coin, “stewardesses” became “flight attendants,” covering men who did the same job.

Still other titles were assumed to be male-only unless preceded by “woman” or “lady,” as in “lady doctor” and “woman lawyer.” Remember? In another sign of the changing times, “workmen’s compensation” turned into “worker’s comp.”

Yes, there were hold-outs and mockers then. Ms. magazine (which had debuted in 1972) ran a now famous takeoff on the wits who pretended the word “man” was verboten in all contexts: “The Great Person-Hole Cover Debate.”

Language landmarks of the last 30 years include the gradual acceptance of “Ms” as a title that did not disclose a woman’s marital status (the New York Times started using it only 23 years ago, in 1986); production of books and guidelines for inclusionary or non-sexist language; introduction of “he or she” or “s/he” and other variants, some more well-intentioned than grammatical.

But those are all old war stories. Today, with sensibilities heightened and diversity the rule, people are less willing than ever to be lumped together – especially in limiting, demeaning ways. Probably no where else does this happen more than in reference to our aging population.

“We continue to have embedded in our culture a fear of growing old, manifest by negative stereotypes and language that belittles the very nature of growing old, its complexities and tremendous variability.”  That, according to “Media Takes on Aging: Styleguide for Journalism, Entertainment and Advertising,” a right-on little booklet jointly produced earlier this year by the International Longevity Center-USA and Aging Services of California.

Seen as “a step toward overcoming ageist language and beliefs,” the booklet – not strident as might be feared, but highly readable and hard to dispute – is around 50 pages and available online.

Early on, “ageism” is defined as “ideas, attitudes, beliefs and practices on the part of individuals that are biased against persons or groups based on their age” – and the majority of older persons report having experienced it.

Once again, just as sexist language was taken literally, now, even though ageist stereotypes and prejudices do not represent reality, “the perceptions of older people and their views of themselves are directly affected by how they’re depicted in the news media, on television, in film and in advertising.” The booklet’s replete with examples of such negative depictions.

In fact, one researcher who studies the effects of such messages on the health of elderly people “found that little insults can lead to more negative images of aging and, in fact, even worsen functional health over time.” In her long-term survey, she found “that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer.”

Citing the dramatic under-representation of older people on TV (the medium that’s watched by more older people than by any other age group) the booklet quotes one such  adult: that unreality feeds “the feeling of invisibility older people have in the world. It teaches us that older people don’t count.”

No longer playing “the role of obedient daughter, child bearer or sex object,” women experience this invisibility even more than men.

Of greatest possible value, “Media Takes” focuses on terminology. It lists easily recognized ageist words and phrases as well as others that are more subtly damaging and still in use.

“Senior,” to one journalist, “conjures up dentures and discounts, decline and dysfunction.” While those 54 and under consider “senior citizen” to be neutral, those over 55 regard it as offensive. (Similar reactions surfaced to the words “elderly” and “retiree” – those under 55 found them acceptable; those 55 or more did not.)

An alternative for individuals over 50 is “older adult” – after all, the booklet advises, “we don’t refer to people under age 50 as “junior citizens.” The booklet’s glossary indicates that “Older (people, adults, individuals, Americans and so on)” was seen by nearly 100 age-beat journalists as the top choice term – the more neutral and flexible general descriptor for people in later life.”

Another recommendation: use “person” or “individual” as a variation on the noun form of “elderly,” and avoid patronizing expressions like “80 years young.” The words, and concepts, “veteran,” “experience” and “independent” are reported as important and validating to older people.

Stereotyping terms to avoid include such words as feisty, spry, grandmotherly. And so on. And on.

The battle lines are drawn and the mission is clear: eliminate insidious and harmful ageism, starting with ageist language. To arms, experienced women, victorious veterans  of earlier word wars! Join the campaign to rid the world of the scourge of ageism.

A demobilized sexism fighter, Pat Summers is a freelance writer who blogs at

The content of "Media Takes: On Aging" is available online for review and downloading at and Limited quantities of printed books are available on request to Aging Services of California, 1315 I Street, Suite 100. Sacramento, CA 95814 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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