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We Japanese don't have the humourous and witty phrase like "Age before beauty," as you have. We only have simple and dry expressions, "Please" or "Please go first."

However, I recently noticed disagreements among definitions of the phrase, “Age before beauty” in online English dictionaries as to the phrase being more often used in an exchange between a younger person and an elder.

www.phrases.org.uk defines the phrase as: "Older people should be given precedence over the younger, and by implication more beautiful. This is normally used jocularly, often by the older person in order to flatter the younger." To me it sounds somewhat arrogant for the elder to manifest priority on passage to the younger, even if jocularly or in flattery.

Wiktionary defines the phrase as: "Most often used humorously or lightheartedly, and usually said by a younger person to an older friend or relative out of mock pity. In most instances it would be considered rude for a younger man to say this to an older woman."

UsingEnglish.com defines it as: "When this idiom is used, it is a way of allowing an older person to do something first, though often in a slightly sarcastic way." From this, I assume the phrase is more often given by younger person.

There is no entry for “Age before beauty” in any of Oxford, Cambridge and Merriam-Webster, though Google Ngram registers continued growth of the usage of the phrase since 1860.

Now the question: By which age (or sex) segment (whether older or younger, male or female) is “Age before beauty” being spoken more often? Or is this phrase being used commonly regardless of age and sex?

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I don't really see any serious disagreement between those sources. –  T.E.D. Nov 18 '11 at 13:13
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@T.E.D.: I think OP's uncertainty stems from the fact that he's thinking of the expression as a saying or proverb, expressing some meaningful maxim. But in fact it never really was that. It's a remarkably long-lived "catchphrase" form of words with little real meaning - just oft-recurring situations where it can be trotted out almost mindlessly. –  FumbleFingers Nov 19 '11 at 2:12

3 Answers 3

Back in days of old, it was considered common courtesy for a man to enter or exit a doorway or stairwell or room first. This courtesy held the intent that the elder man would inadvertantly ensure the woman's safety by being first to enter a new territory where some or other danger might be unforeseeably present. As time grew on and people became less paranoid and suspicious, it became courteous for a younger person to give way to an older person, out of a sign of respect. For an older man to allow a woman to go first, irrespective of age, was considered an act of chivalry. Nowadays the phrase is used more often as a quip by the younger to emphasize the elder persons age in contrast to their own youth and beauty.

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How is this answer different from the 2011 answer? Where is your research? –  MετάEd Apr 26 '13 at 4:13

I think this definition has it about right. The expression started in the mid to late 1800s, as a polite way for an older women to acknowledge the courtesy of a younger woman (in standing aside to let her enter a room first, for example). But it soon became a gallant thing for an older man to say to a girl, and to be used jokingly between other pairs.

Effectively, it's a long-surviving catchphrase (sense:2 there), which doesn't really "mean" anything beyond the literal. No doubt it's been said often by twins - who themselves invariably know which one is a few seconds or minutes older. On different occasions either twin might say it. The sex of each twin being irrelevant - the only requirement of the context is the older one goes or gets first.

It's normally said jokingly these days. It would be a bit "cheesy" to use it in contexts where any element of latter-day gallantry was intended.

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I agree with most of what you said, but I don't get how it's gallant for an older man to use to a girl... to let himself go first? Am I missing something? –  Lynn Nov 18 '11 at 5:38
    
@FumbleFingers. Does “latter-day gallantry” mean courtesy in contemporary (fashionable) manner? Is it a “set phrase”? –  Yoichi Oishi Nov 18 '11 at 6:36
    
@Lynn: Going first isn't always a "good" thing. The gallant gentleman would start moving from the aisle and push through the row to your seats at the theatre, for example. Or get out of a train carriage first so he could then steady his young lady as she followed. –  FumbleFingers Nov 18 '11 at 12:54
    
@Yoichi: Yes, "latter day" is literally "contemporary". Apart from (or perhaps because of)) the Mormons (Latter-day Saints), it's normally used flippantly, as was my intention there. It's a bit dated, not particularly common, and has no special association with gallantry. Gallantry is itself somewhat old-fashioned, both as word and behaviour - I just used that phrasing to echo what I was talking about. –  FumbleFingers Nov 18 '11 at 13:23

Whenever I've heard this term in contemporary use, it was meant to be a good-natured backhanded compliment, often between a worker and his supervisor (I've heard this most often in the work setting, as it seems to work best with people who know each other and are on good terms).

Let's say Tom (age 28) works for Jerry (age 44), and the two of them are waiting for an elevator. When the elevator doors open, Tom gestures kindly, as if to say "after you," but as Jerry takes the first step, Tom says with a smile, "Age before beauty."

The implication is, "Not only are you older than me, but I'm better looking, too!" (After all, if it was beauty before age, Tom would have stepped on first – at least, that's what he's implying).

The UK site Phrase Finder mentions that the idiom is usually uttered "by the older person in order to flatter the younger," but in my experience in the U.S., it's usually the other way around – the younger says it to the older as a way to tease him or her about getting old.

As an aside, FumbleFingers mentioned the irony of twins using this phrase, because their age difference is mere minutes. That reminds me of one of the funniest utterences I've ever heard: a girl who was told, "Well, you're so ugly, who would ever want to marry you?" by her identical twin sister!

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Ditto about U.S. use in my experience as well. –  zpletan May 1 '12 at 16:08

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