I am reading the diary of a Colonel in the British Army in the 1940s. He describes some of the recruits as "old stiffs".

This seems to be largely a compliment, and seems to refer to older folk who have fought in earlier conflicts.

I would appreciate a more subtle description of an "old stiff", though.

(I am a native speaker, so know a fair few meanings of the word, and have looked through a couple of dictionaries for additional meanings, and none seem quite to fit, or else it is hard to see which is being applied).

2 Answers 2


OED has:

b. A mean, disagreeable, or contemptible person (freq. big stiff). Also joc. and loosely, a man, a fellow; working stiff, an ordinary working man. slang (orig. U.S.).

1936 P. G. Wodehouse Laughing Gas viii. 82 He had told me this man was a pretty good sort of old stiff.

1949 Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore, Okla.) 23 Feb. 18/6 A select group of working stiffs in high government circles have run into 20 assorted kinds of complications.

1951 E. Paul Springtime in Paris (U.K. ed.) vii. 139 Hold your trap, you old stiff.

  • In this case it's being repeatedly used in a clearly positive way. For example, old stiffs being good at sentry duty, target practice, and so on. I'd be more convinced by the OED quotes if any were clearly positive. It's clearly not a generic soldier, either, with it being used as a contrasting attribute. Nov 24, 2014 at 20:36
  • I suppose I can see it being used deprecatingly positively (If no one comes up with anything super in a day or two, I'll accept this). Someone could say "the old codgers make excellent guards", for example, particularly if the speaker considers themself old, despite the phrase normally being negative. Nov 25, 2014 at 0:08
  • 1
    I see what you're saying here @DanSheppard as we do find negative terms used affectionately in many senses, even in modern slang with N and B words, normally disparaging, being appropriated by groups as terms of endearment.
    – cmcf
    Nov 25, 2014 at 20:26

A complimentary (American) equivalent of "old stiffs" would be "old timers." That is a reference to people who have "been around" and "know the ropes."

  • I'd wondered if this was the case, but I'm not aware of any usage to match that. Do you have experience from the era, or a source or something? Nov 24, 2014 at 20:33
  • Here's a source: thefreedictionary.com/old-timers
    – Tom Au
    Nov 24, 2014 at 21:11
  • Thanks Tom. From what I can see, that's a reference for "old timer", though. That's a phrase I know. Or did I miss "old stiff" in there? What would be great would be something which shows that "old stiff" was being used to refer to an experienced hand in an at least vaguely positive way. (I think you're right, but that was also my best guess when I asked the question. I was hoping some army dude, or something, would confirm it as slang for an experienced soldier or say "kinda, not so much experienced, but more..."). Nov 25, 2014 at 0:06

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