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"A woman of a certain age" is a common saying.

It means more than "a woman of a given age", "a woman who could be any age" or "female, without respect to age". It's usage instead seems to suggest a much more specific period of life.

Around what age is a woman "of a certain age"?

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    A Woman of a Certain Age: nytimes.com/1995/07/02/magazine/… – user66974 May 17 '16 at 10:28
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    Already some good answers with citations, but I'll just add that my first thought was: that age when a woman is uncomfortable with being asked her age or starts lying about it, shaving off a year or 2 or 10. So although she has definitely has a "certain" age, it might not be known or might not have been prudent to ask. – Dr.DrfbagIII May 17 '16 at 14:06
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    Older than she wants to admit. – Ed Plunkett May 17 '16 at 15:46
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    BTW: it's a literal translation of a French phrase, used in 19th-century literature, meaning middle-aged. – Jeffiekins May 17 '16 at 21:07
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    At first it is so vague and cloudy and uncertain then you realize you are looking right at a cloud. Still uncertain, but you realize it's not your fault anymore. – Mitch May 17 '16 at 23:42
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Of a certain age:

  • who are not young:

    • Adults of a certain age might want to spend a couple of hundred dollars more for a larger monitor that will be much easier on their eyes.

Usage notes:

  • used to avoid saying middle aged or old.

Used also in a humorous sense:

Somebody of a certain age:

  • used to avoid saying that a person, usually a woman, is no longer young but is not yet old.

    • It's a clothes boutique which caters for women of a certain age.

(Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms)

From A woman of a certain age

  • The Oxford English Dictionary defined that sense of certain as "which it is not polite or necessary further to define." That was the sense meant by William Dean Howells when he wrote of "gentlemen approaching a certain weight." The special sense reverses the literal meaning of the word certain, which is "fixed, definite" (much as "I could care less" means "I could not care less").

  • The phrase was repopularized in a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian B. Rubin, "Women of a Certain Age: The Midlife Search for Self," in which midlife spanned 35 to 54.

According to etymonline usage is from mid-18th century:

  • Euphemistic use (of a certain age, etc.) attested from mid-18c.

It is probably worth noting the usage divergence between the two expressions from the '80s. Ngram: women of a certain age vs men of a certain age.

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    The ngram is always interesting to explore. Goethe used it (uh...we use the translation), for young unmarried males with a swirl of conflict in their heads ("Young Werther"). Also, contrary to most specific, (I'd think) modern usages, the current frequency for both is roughly the same as a hundred years ago (with obvious volatility). – Mitch May 17 '16 at 13:11
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    @Josh61 - Ah, the show started in 2009, so just missed it. I suspect it's a side-effect of the double-standard regarding men vs. women of a certain age in Hollywood. Male actors of a certain age are much more likely to be cast in romantic lead roles than their female counterparts, resulting in many films featuring couples where the man is much older than the woman. Thus "a certain age" unfortunately starts earlier for women than men, and so a larger percentage of women as a whole are "of a certain age" by these standards. – Darrel Hoffman May 17 '16 at 19:26
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"X of a certain age" is an intentional vagueness, specific sounding euphemism that is entirely context dependent, on both general culture and the conversational topic, but is more often lately used to mean barely more specifically, later middle age.

As a euphemism, it is directed non-specifically to a target range of age that is undesirable or otherwise not favored. It is usually, in an unwritten manner, meant for middle aged women, not exactly old, but not exactly young, and towards the older side. Recently there was a TV show called Men of a Certain Age about late middle aged men going through annoying late middle aged male things (job and romance problems).

If you're looking for a specific age, which will make you either jump up to go to the night club and do flaming navel shots or conversely cry into your cold cereal late at night, there really isn't one.

It is a clever, almost Victorian figure of speech in that it claims specificity, while providing none, yet you are presumed to know what it is they're talking about.

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    I would also add that a woman in her late 60s or early 70s would likely be called "retired", "old" or (worse still) "elderly". Of course teenagers classify anyone over the age of 30 as being "old", so it's all rather subjective. – Mari-Lou A May 17 '16 at 16:04
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    @Mari-LouA It is definitely vague – Mitch May 17 '16 at 16:43
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    Voted up for "context". You are supposed to infer it from the other information given. If you can't do that, you certainly shouldn't ask, and thus will have to live with the uncertainty. – T.E.D. May 17 '16 at 21:11
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In my experience, it's most often used colloquially to simply refer to "at our/their time of life". Looking it up, the consensus is that it means "no longer young", e.g. the freedictionary definition of simply who are not young. The Urban Dictionary definition is a little more direct:

Ironically polite term for a woman who does not want her actual age known, e.g. one who is close to or just over the menopause.

... however, I don't believe there's a precise point at which you step over a line. Despite the above, it's not wholly a synonym for "middle aged" (whatever that means in itself!), nor is it precisely "likely to be menopausal" or similar. That's roughly where it's headed, though.

An interesting exploration in the NYT some 20+ years ago:

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/02/magazine/in-language-a-woman-of-a-certain-age.html

... which traces it to 1754. So it's been deliberately vague for a quarter of a millennium :)

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The earliest Google Books match I could find for "[women] of a certain age" is from The Spectator, number 53 (May 1, 1711), and it takes the expression in an unexpected direction:

Epictetus, that plain honest philosopher, as little as he had of gallantry, appears to have understood them [women], as well as the polite St. Evremont, and has hit this point very luckily. "When young women," says he, "arrive at a certain age, they hear themselves called Mistresses, and are made to believe, that their only business is to please the men : they immediately begin to dress, and place all their hopes in the adorning of their persons ; it is therefore," continues he, "worth the while to endeavour by all means to make them sensible, that the honour paid to them is only upon account of their conducting themselves with virtue, modesty, and discretion."

A similar sense appears in Letters from Henrietta to Morvina: Interspersed with Anecdotes, Historical and Amusing, of the Different Courts and Countries Through Which She Passed (1777):

She [an "amiable friend"] is one of two daughters of a prince of one of the first houses (next to those of the blood) in France : indeed some of the purest of that blood runs in her veins, and she does honour to the best blood in Europe. At a certain age, she, like all other women of condition, was placed in a convent for education. From a sweetness of disposition, as well as strength and quickness of parts, soon became the darling of the whole sisterhood, and she held them equally dear.

In both of these instances, the "certain age" is scarcely beyond childhood. Francis Hutcheson, A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, in Three Books: Containing the Elements of Ethicks and the Law of Nature (1753) may have a similar starting point in mind when he asserts that the desire to have children is peculiar to persons of "a certain age," though it isn't clear whether he specifically has in mind a desire for parenthood or simply sexual desire:

The appetites toward the preservation of the body are excited in every stage of life by the uneasy sensations of hunger, thirst, and cold. The desire of offspring at a certain age, and parental affection is also universal ; and in consequence of them the like affections toward kinsmen.

George Berkeley, "Farther Thoughts on Tar-Water," in A Miscellany Containing Several Tracts on Various Subjects (1752) seems to apply the phrase to women after menopause:

There is a certain Age or Time of Life, when the female Sex runs no small Risk from the ceasing of their natural Evacuations. In this Case Tar-Water is a good Preservative, purifying the Blood, and clearing it from that cancerous Tendency, which it is sometimes subject to, about that time. I take it to be a Specific in all cancerous Cases, even the bleeding Cancer, esteemed incurable by Physicians, hath been cured by Tar-Water.

The expression "[person] of a certain age" likewise dates to the early 1700s, but the certain age is not consistent from one instance to the next. For example, from "Letter 38, On the Scotch Laws Relative to Marriage" (May 10, 1775), in Anonymous, Letters From Edinburgh, Written in the Years 1774 and 1775, volume 2:

You will imagine, I suppose, from hence [an instance where the presumption of marriage from cohabitation, under Scottish law, led to a finding that two people who conceived a child together without cohabiting were legally married], that here is nobody of a certain age unmarried. But, as I have already told you, though many attempts are made to infer such kind of nuptials, they are constantly almost discouraged by the Judges.

The first Google Books instance where "a certain age" emphasizes that the woman thus described is no longer in the first blush of her youth appears in "The Several Classes of Ladies," in The London Magazine (December 1754), reprinted from the November 28 issue of The Connoisseur:

At the house of an acquaintance where I lately visited, I was told, that we were to expect Mrs. Jackson and the two Miss Wrinkles. But what was my surprise! when I saw on their arrival a blooming female of 25 escorted under the first denomination, and the two nymphs, as I expected, come tottering into the room, the youngest of them to all appearance on the verge of 60. I could not help wishing on this occasion, that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony. For surely nothing can be more ridiculous, than to hear a grey-haired lady past her grand climackterick mentioned in terms, that convey the very idea of youth and beauty, or, perhaps, of a bib and hanging-sleeves.

This is the example that William Safire cites in his article that Josh61 mentions in a comment above. An even clearer example of the same usage appears in Joseph Palmer, A Fortnight's Ramble to the Lakes in Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland (1792):

Set off in the Leeds mail coach with a fair wind and a scowling sky ; our company consisted of my friend, a Sheffield manufacturer, a maiden lady of a certain age with a large band box, big enough to have purloined a Jemmy Jumps, but which we will suppose was better furnished with head ornaments to surprise a country village.

The crucial specific of both this example and the previous one is that the woman of "a certain age" is unmarried—and no longer deemed (by critical observing males) to be prime marrying material. Today, "a woman of a certain age" seems to retain much the same meaning as in these two instances, except that the woman's being unmarried has become far less significant as a qualifying criterion than her being past the first bloom of youth.

  • With respect, most of these citations do not follow the specified format. "At a certain age" and "there is a certain age" are not the same as "women of a certain age", and I take them to be more general, flexible expressions than the one whose meaning is sought. – Mathieu K. May 18 '16 at 16:52
  • @Mathieu K.: I was trying to establish that "a woman of a certain age" emerged from an earlier tradition of use of, first, "a certain age," and second "of a certain age." And I was interested in seeing how the "certain age" varied and eventually coalesced at a more narrowly understood "certain age." My answer thus attempts to address a question tangential to the poster's: Where did the notion of what "a certain age" means in the expression "a woman of a certain age" come from? – Sven Yargs May 18 '16 at 17:15
  • Okay, cool. I would, again respectfully, hold that answers to questions tangential do not necessarily qualify as answer to the question posed. I will certainly grant you that this is interesting research. – Mathieu K. May 18 '16 at 18:40
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This question should be closed for it can be answered straightforwardly by looking up any dictionary and is linguistically unproductive.

"Of a certain age" is a subjective expression, subjective being defined as "based on feelings or opinions rather than facts" (Webster Dictionary).

Furthermore the Webster Dictionary defines "certain" (among other definitions) as "of a specific but unspecified character, quantity, or degree ".

In other words this question makes no more sense than asking "How big is 'fairly' big?" or, by extension, "Why do you like chicken?"

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