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Could you please give your opinion on whether or not "senility" is a pejorative term?

My sentence is:

Although there wasn't any real upper age limit, elders who seemed to be affected by senility were omitted from the survey.

3 Answers 3

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I have to disagree with the two current answers. If you call someone "senile" it is hard to see how it would not be taken as an insult in this day and age.

Here are some usage notes from TheFreeDictionary.com:

In earlier writings one finds phrases such as "a senile maturity of judgment" and "green and vigorous senility," demonstrating that senile and senility have not always been burdened with their current negative connotations. These two words are examples of pejoration, the process by which a word's meaning changes for the worse over time. Even though senile (first recorded in 1661) and senility (first recorded in 1778) initially had neutral senses such as "pertaining to old age" (the sense of their Latin source, the adjective senlis), it is probable that the mental decline that sometimes accompanies old age eventually caused negative senses to predominate. Although recent medical research has demonstrated that the memory and cognitive disorders once designated by senility are often caused by various diseases rather than the aging process itself, it seems unlikely that the word will regain its neutral senses.

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  • On a related note, I think most terms can or will be cast as pejorative at some point in time. Take the earlier question about "special".
    – simchona
    Aug 1, 2011 at 18:38
  • @Robusto: could you please suggest what in your opinion is a non-pejorative alternative? Thanks. Aug 1, 2011 at 19:50
  • @Benjamin: When in doubt, call things by their technical names. "Although there wasn't any real upper age limit, elders who seemed to be affected by age-related dementia or Alzheimer's were omitted from the survey."
    – Robusto
    Aug 1, 2011 at 20:01
  • I would say that "senility" carries a denotation precisely like "affected by age-related dementia", but is more general than "affected by Alzheimer's" as that is a particular cause of dementia. It is a perfectly good, perfectly descriptive word. Certainly the condition that it describes in undesirable, undignified, and frightening; but throwing a long phrase at it doesn't really change that. Still, it is never polite to insist on a word that the subject dislikes. Aug 1, 2011 at 22:44
  • I think the current meaning of senility is precisely "age-related dementia", and it is neither more nor less pejorative than the longer phrase. The fact that senility used to mean "old age" is irrelevant.
    – Marthaª
    Aug 1, 2011 at 23:40
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"Senility" is not a pejorative term. There is no other commonly-used phrase to describe this condition, the only plausible alternative being senile dementia, which is even worse sounding.

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  • That's like saying "obese" isn't a pejorative term just because people writing in medical/statistical contexts have to use it for lack of any less pejorative word. Aug 1, 2011 at 14:18
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    @Fumble, the word obese isn't pejorative, but that doesn't mean that people don't object to being called fat. It just means that the objection doesn't have to do with the word itself. Aug 1, 2011 at 14:21
  • I do agree, but I just feel that - as with many theoretically/originally 'neutral' words used for negatively-perceived referents - the word senility is probably already somewhat 'tainted' and will become more so. Health workers speaking with relatives of an afflicted person may well already have a stock of alternative 'euphemisms' to describe this distressing condition. Aug 1, 2011 at 14:30
  • @Fumble, well, that's probably true. But in the context of the OP's question, I think that "senility" is fine. Aug 1, 2011 at 14:49
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    Absolutely - but personally I'd have explicitly said "not a pejorative term in this context". Wouldn't want OP going around describing people as senile just because he thinks it's a totally neutral term. Aug 1, 2011 at 15:10
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The use in your given sentence is not pejorative; the noun form is a bit too formal and refers to a much too abstract general condition to be used pejoratively. If you were to refer to someone as 'that senile old bat', it would then be pejorative.

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