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Would you say describing somebody as "geriatric" is offensive? I think it's neutral in American English, but the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary describes it as "informal" and "offensive".

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In Australia I think it would be 'humorous'. – d'alar'cop Feb 2 '14 at 10:36
Good to know. Thanks! – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 10:43
If you were to label me as being geriatric because my memory is impaired, and I have the typical aches and pains of the elderly, I'd be offended! Depending on context and tone, it can be offensive, humorous, or an unfortunate reminder that one is inevitably heading in that direction. – Mari-Lou A Feb 2 '14 at 12:23
Thanks a lot, Mari-Lou! – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 13:17
Is the Advancer Learner's Dictionary using that label for geriatric (adjective) or geriatric (noun)? (The second one is an informal usage, and usually offensive.) – Alex P Feb 2 '14 at 16:04

Since geriatric is defined as

an old person, esp. one receiving special care; an old person; a branch of medicine that deals with the problems and diseases of old age and aging people.

I would imagine that it might be a bit offensive to the many healthy seniors who might be lumped into that category.

I think a much less loaded term is senior, widely accepted to include anyone 65 and over.

The book Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America by Margaret Morganroth Gullette supports this to some degree.

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Would you say this sentence sounds offensive? "Meryl Streep's portrayal of the geriatric Thatcher was very convincing." – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 11:08
Or how do you feel about this? <a geriatric writer with literary memories — Michel Lambeth> – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 11:10
No, I don't find those to be offensive. One reason is that they describe one individual, not an entire group; another is because I might interpret the first as the portrayal of an elder who is indeed suffering from illness. In the latter example, I think of geriatric as being in the older range of seniors. I myself wouldn't describe a 65 yo author as geriatric. – medica Feb 2 '14 at 11:26
Thanks, Susan! Probably it depends on the context. If we use it in the vocative (as in "You, geriatric!), then it's a slightly different story. :-) – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 11:30
I agree with Susan that it's best to avoid the word, especially since you have perfectly good choices like "seniors", "elders", "older generation", etc, etc. As an example of the kind of negative connotation I'm thinking of: "He's a musician with a stellar reputation among the geriatric set." (Sarcastic.) – Wayne Feb 2 '14 at 14:37

The OED’s first definition of geriatric is:

Of or pertaining to geriatrics; designed for use by old people.

Geriatrics is ‘the branch of medicine, or of social science, dealing with the health of old people.’ The -iatrics part is from the Greek word for ‘physcian’.

The OED’s second definition is:

In weakened use, especially contemptuously: old or senile. colloquial.

It will not always be offensive, and may sometimes, indeed, be humorous. But unless you are sure that you are using it in an appropriate context, it might be best to avoid it.

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Thanks a lot, Barrie. I think I've been using it correctly so far. :-) – Louel Feb 2 '14 at 14:56
@Louel: But different senses often add connotation to denotation, and it's how people take things (MW: 'causing displeasure or resentment') that defines whether an utterance is offensive. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 2 '14 at 16:20

Some words which start off as entirely medical terms, become pejorative and unpleasant as people (often beginning with kids in playgrounds), use them as terms of derision.

Classically in this category is 'Spastic', which originated as a medical term to describe certain types of cerebral palsy. But it became a word for referring derisively to anyone who had awkward physical movements. Children who could not compete athletically were often called this by their peers. Members of the crowd at football matches would use it for opposing players, or for the referee. So whilst the word is still used medically in some parts of the world, it is socially proscribed in Britain as offensive.

Unfortunately I do see the possibility of 'geriatric' going the same way. And I speak as one over 65, who if he had to go into hospital might well be put in a ward with that name notwithstanding the fact that I do 15 mile walks on a reasonably regular basis.

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