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Is it safe to use "old" to mean "previous" or "former" for something like "my old teacher"? Or is it a bit risky, because "old" also has a meaning with respect to age (i.e., chronologically gifted)?

Wiktionary doesn't give any warnings about "old" potentially causing offense. But should it be avoided in this context anyway?

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I like this euphemism for age "(ie chronologically gifted)". Despite its common use in everyday parlance, I'd avoid using old to mean previous/former around people who are particularly PC & who are prepared to take umbrage at everything they hear that might even remotely imply a negative meaning. All 5 of my "old wives" are much younger than I, except for the two who are "late". For most folks, perception is reality, even when they know it isn't (cognitive dissonance); and judgment is half of their alleged "right to freedom of expression", & self-righteous indignation, the other half. – user21497 Jan 12 '13 at 7:38
@Bill Franke: How dare you. – Mitch Jan 12 '13 at 13:45
@Mitch: Easy. Half nature & half nurture. I'm at my own mercy, and I seem to have none. Not for myself, at least. – user21497 Jan 12 '13 at 14:10
up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's perfectly acceptable. While I suppose that old could be misconstrued to mean aged, it's unlikely to be misinterpreted as such in context.

Here's a dictionary confirmation:

7: former
his old students

A real-world example using variants of old and former to describe students and teachers can be seen here.

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"in the provided context.": What context is provided in the question? For all purposes, the phrase could be followed by: ", not the younger one, I mean." providing the required "context". – Kris Jan 12 '13 at 7:31
@Kris Updated answer. – coleopterist Jan 12 '13 at 7:36
I cannot "update" the comment, but it stands, minus the word 'provided'. :) See: english.stackexchange.com/a/97652/14666 – Kris Jan 12 '13 at 7:41
@Kris :) I'd love to split hairs with you. But I'll let Messrs. Webster & Merriam do that on my behalf :P – coleopterist Jan 12 '13 at 7:43
And indeed, if one were to refer to old-age teachers, or even students, surely one would use elderly. – Andrew Leach Jan 12 '13 at 10:39

If they are your enemies and you must talk delicately, then say former. Otherwise, you are a-ok.

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Generally, old in the sense of former or previous is not used in such constructions at all. In the given context, the word old can only mean aged; My old teacher cannot be the opposite of My new teacher.

However, old is sometimes used in such expressions as my old house (to mean the previous), and an old friend (long-time friend).

On a different note, the use of old for former or previous is standard in some Oriental languages, where old is the antonym of new in every context.

"But should it be avoided in this context anyway?" Yes.

The adjective applies to time (indirect, elided reference) rather than the noun mentioned (person). As such, it can be used only where its reference is unambiguously to time. "My old friend" has the elision: "My old (-time) friend". Not all contexts are self-explanatory and can be ambiguous, as in "My old teacher" occurring without context.

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Kris, I have to say that it was quite a common expression for former where I grew up (New York State) as in: "When I went back for my class reunion I got to see many of my old teachers." Also here it is used in a book – Jim Jan 12 '13 at 5:45
@Jim "When I went back for my class reunion I got to see many of my old teachers." refers to teachers of the old (earlier times) not the previous (as opposed to current). So is the use of old teacher in the book as well. – Kris Jan 12 '13 at 5:51
I guess I don't see any difference between previous and of an earlier time because I don't interpret previous to mean exactly one prior, it could be any one of my former teachers. Could you explain how you see it as different? – Jim Jan 12 '13 at 5:55
You did say it, though you didn't see it.:) – Kris Jan 12 '13 at 5:57
The insistence by @Kris that "previous" can only mean immediately prior rather ignores the fact that the OP asked asked about previous or former. My former students referred to me as their "old teacher" long before the second meaning (aged) was applicable. – Fortiter Jan 12 '13 at 7:17

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