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When should I use "eldest" and when should I use "oldest"?

Are the differences semantic or regional? (Or both?)

(What got me wondering is the removeEldestEntry() method in Java's LinkedHashMap class.)

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3 Answers 3

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Indeed, both eldest and oldest refer to the greatest in age. The crucial difference, however, lies in the fact that eldest can only be used for related persons, while oldest can be used for any person, place or thing in a group of related or unrelated elements. Examples:

  • He is the eldest/oldest of the three children.
  • Mine is the eldest/oldest car on the block.
  • John is the eldest (less common)/oldest student in my class.
  • She is the eldest (less common)/oldest of my nieces.
  • 'Is New York the eldest/oldest city in the US?'
  • He's the eldest (less common)/oldest in the brotherhood.

And while eldest can be used for any group of related persons, in reality, it is mostly only used in reference to siblings.


New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition) definition of eldest:

(of one out of a group of related or otherwise associated people) of the greatest age; oldest

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Thanks for the excellent answer. So the Usage in the Java class is wrong. –  Sean Patrick Floyd Jan 21 '11 at 16:50
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@Sean Patrick Floyd: You're welcome. Well, in strict grammatical terms, the sentence Remove eldest entry is incorrect, considering the definition of eldest. However, this is propriety language and Java can do whatever they want! In this sense, the command removeEldestEntry could be regarded as correct usage. Indeed, while the entries are related, they are not human, except, of course, one argues that Java personifies Entry, thus rendering it perfectly correct usage! This is not far-fetched in computer science. For instance, there are parent nodes and child nodes! –  Jimi Oke Jan 21 '11 at 17:04
    
@Jimi: Agreed, but only if this usage of "eldest" actually refers to one child node compared to two or more other child nodes of the same parent; otherwise the reader might be mislead into thinking that it was such a child node &c. –  Cerberus Jan 21 '11 at 18:02
    
@Jimi: Does the same hold true when using elder and older as adjectives? Namely, elder for comparing a group of related persons and older for all other groups? –  Scott Mitchell Jan 21 '11 at 19:38
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@Jimi: I think elder statesman, elderly woman &c are just remnants of past usage; I'd say "elder" is pretty much restricted to siblings in modern English. –  Cerberus Jan 21 '11 at 22:40
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They are interchangeable; they both mean exactly the same thing. I think there is a general tendency to use eldest in relation to people, e.g.

John is my eldest son.

For some reason,

John is my oldest son

sounds wrong, almost like he's the son you've had for longest as opposed to him being the son with the greatest age.

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Interesting, in reference to @Jimi Oke's answer above. It would be useful if eldest/oldest could be used to make that distinction (oldest in actual age vs. oldest in the relationship given). For example, "Delaware is the oldest state in the Union, but Virginia is the eldest". Hmmm. Maybe not. :) –  mattdm Jan 21 '11 at 20:36
    
@mattdm: Hmmm, interesting. Well, there is such a thing as personification! We often talk of sister cities/ sister states/ parent institutions. One hears phrases like elder establishment and the like. At the superlative, though, eldest is usually reserved for related persons. Your example, though, is not unfathomable if one considers the states as members (siblings) of the same family (union). –  Jimi Oke Jan 21 '11 at 22:02
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Both are okay. Just elder, eldest are often used to replace older and oldest, nowadays.

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Elder and Older have some differences, though. Elder can be used as a noun, as in "Respect your elders," whereas older cannot. –  Scott Mitchell Jan 21 '11 at 19:37
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Also, I don't use "elder" in place of "older" most of the time. –  Kosmonaut Jan 21 '11 at 19:54
    
@ScottMitchell The OED disagrees with you. It gives plenty of citations form the 20th century, and even one from the 21st. –  tchrist Jun 20 '12 at 2:02
    
@tchrist, I can't see the OED entry, I don't have a subscription to the site. Are you saying that "Respect your olders" is a valid sentence? –  Scott Mitchell Jun 20 '12 at 2:25
    
@ScottMitchell Yes, of course. Citations: “The olders say that the Creator told them to make their homesteads circular.” [1967]; “The ‘olders’, all volunteers, go through nine days of inservice training. They get one credit for their work with the grade-schoolers.” [1972] “Second graders are olders, kindergartners are youngers, for certain. But where do first graders fit?” [1997] “The Malay feudal system of old when the Sultan's must trusted council of olders were conferred a hereditary title.” [2001] You should be albe to access the OED through your school or public library. –  tchrist Jun 20 '12 at 11:43
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protected by Jasper Loy Jun 20 '12 at 12:59

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