MY WORD: Euphemisms can help make a smoother path

EUPHEMISMS have been with us for centuries and they have served a useful purpose in covering any eventuality. 

Take age for instance. Forget about replacements for those rude words that children used to write on toilet walls until the words lost their impact. The biggest impact on human sensibilities these days can come from using the wrong word to describe someone of advancing years.

Old is not a word people think much about, until they see “advancing years” advancing. Then some people try hard to think about something else. Some have thought about other words for old that don’t sound, well, so “old”.

About ten years ago the president of a retirees’ organisation told me that a newspaper with which I was associated had incorrectly reported on the Year of the Elderly. “It is not the Year of the Elderly,” he said. “In fact, many people get upset at the use of that word.” I promised I would pass on the message.

I can recall that many years ago some states had Old People’s Week until old people objected at the word old. Then we had a Senior Citizens’ Week, but someone said to me he didn’t like being called a senior citizen because “it makes me feel old”.

At a time when people are fighting racism, sexism and ageism, some communities have decreed that the cutoff date for their “citizen of the year” has to be 65.

What is old? John Ayto quoted American financier Bernard Baruch as saying “old age is always 15 years older than I am”. 

But whether we talk about advancing years, seniors, seasoned, in our dotage or in God’s waiting room, we can’t escape the meaning, try as we might.

Former Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Peterson, when retirement was looming, commented: “Please just call me old when you think that is the right description. But, I beg of you, not retiree.”

One dictionary said of old: “Used in a negative way for something not useful any longer.” Other dictionaries are a bit kinder.

While on euphemisms, another word that causes distress to some people is the word special.

I hadn’t thought much about this until Moree reader Margaret Hurle told me of a boy called Miklos, from a non-English speaking background, who struggled with the English language and achieved some success at school.

At the school’s presentation night the principal announced a “special award” for him.

Miklos protested that he was not “special” and expressed some reluctance to receive the award, because his knowledge of the word related to a “special class” at his school catering for people who were, using another euphemism, developmentally delayed.

Margaret suggested the word special had been hijacked from its original purpose and would remain in use until the embarrassment factor forced people to come up with some other word.

Probably we all need to keep in mind that no matter what our occupation, our age, our level of health or our place of birth, some factors are beyond our control and we can fall back on euphemisms to make a smoother path through life and avoid giving offence where no offence is intended.

Now, as for old, how about chronologically gifted?

lbword@midcoast.com.au

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