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Advice being given because of the COVID-19 pandemic, includes the word “elderly”.

I know someone aged 77 who does not feel elderly but does admit to being old.

Is there more of a negative association to the word “elderly” than to the word "old"?

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    "Old" is how you feel or look (or not). "Elderly" is what gets you on Medicare. – Robusto Mar 19 at 1:22
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    ...or as Billy Cristal said (1985), "It's not how you feel, it's how you look, and darling, you look marvelous" – Rattler Mar 19 at 17:08
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    This is all very interesting. Personally I think of "elderly" as a term of respect give its close relation to the term "elders", which to me connotes experience and wisdom. – Timbo Mar 19 at 17:38
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    @Timbo Likewise if you are elderly then you are an Elder, which means you have a higher level of magical power than ordinary witches... – Michael Mar 20 at 6:58
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    @Sean: Pardon my glibness. I didn't mean to make an analogy that is correct to six decimal places. – Robusto Mar 21 at 15:41

11 Answers 11

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Is there more of a negative association to the word “elderly” than to the word "old"?

Possibly it is the reverse. I would normally call myself "old", and leave the usage of "elderly" to my grandchildren when they are talking about me within earshot. I am pretty sure they use other and more colorful language when I am not around.

Elderly is seen as a polite expression, especially when talking about a group.

Cambridge online

Ex.

The elderly are more susceptible to the virus.

...but usually not...

Old people are more susceptible to the virus.

A famous use of the word can be seen in LoTR:

Frodo: "We're friends of Gandalf the Grey. Can you tell him we've arrived?"

Butterbur: "Gandalf? Gandalf? Oh yes! I remember: elderly chap, big gray beard, pointy hat… Not seen him for six months."

...and of course Butterbur was being respectful, as any good publican would be.

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    Another difference is that, in my experience, "elderly" is usually only used with people, or at least living things, whereas old can apply to anything, living or inanimate. – Kevin Mar 18 at 13:51
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    @Kevin: That's old news. ^_^ – Robusto Mar 21 at 15:42
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"Old" is an objective description, as a comparison with "young" - though there is no agreement on the age when one ceases be "young" and becomes "old".

"Elderly" is not necessarily either positive or negative, but it usually implies the idea of displaying signs of being "old".

For example someone still competing as a power-lifter at age 89, despite several medical procedures including triple heart bypass surgery, could certainly be described as "old" but not as "elderly." (Ref: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-51825800/bionic-powerlifter-ted-brown-still-competing-at-almost-90).

On the other hand a 50-year-old with poor physical mobility and declining mental capability might well be described "elderly".

For example, see the UK road sign warning of "blind", "disabled", or "elderly" pedestrians crossing the road: https://www.road-signs.uk.com/Road_Signs/Elderly_People/82.html - though some pensioners' organizations have complained that this is pejorative.

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The succession of old by elderly, and now by senior or older, is just one example of the euphemism treadmill identified by Steven Pinker. Perhaps we are not far from a complete cycle of the treadmill, when (for a while at least) the unpretentious old will be back in favour.

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"Old" is better used as a comparative than an absolute. If you're 40 in a room full of high school seniors, they're young and you're old. If you're 40 in a room full of people signing up for Medicare for the first time, you're young and they're old.

Elderly is better used as a description of physiological age rather than chronological age. Elderly is used to describe people who have difficulty rising from low chairs, age spots and thin skin on the back of their hands, and other signs of significant physical decline associated with aging. These changes occur at varying chronological ages. Elderly applies when a combination of these signals that the individual has substantially diminished and diminishing physical capacity.

One of the alternatives, "senior citizen", is a chronological description that's about to become obsolete. It was defined by the original Social Security Act to mean 65 or older. Early retirement at 62 and Late at 68 blurred the age. Its about to become muddy. Carter era changes finally phasing in 45 years later push the retirement age up 1 year every 2nd year, stopping at 67/70/73 in 2030. In 2030 "senior citizen" will mean aged over 67, 70, or 73 to the gov't. To the public it may mean over some age between 62 and 73 but its more likely its lost so much of its meaning that a new descriptive euphemism emerges to replace it. "Use it or lose it."

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In addition to all of the great answers, "old" is a word which may have a context, while "elderly" is always with respect to biological aging.

Tom Brady is a 42 year old quarterback. With respect to NFL players, we might say "Tom Brady is old." We would not say "Tom Brady is elderly." 42 is not a very high age for human beings in general, although it is very high for a contact sports player.

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  • But we certainly might call him the NFL's elder statesman. Referring to someone as a village elder wouldn't be derogatory. Pointing out that a given individual is the elder sibling would be applicable regardless of physiological age. 'Elderly' does not always have that connotation. – Mockman Mar 20 at 1:43
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Short answer: yes.

At 64, am I really elderly? ... Like most baby boomers, a generation devoted to wellness and working out, I have been operating under the assumption that 60 is the new 40. Suddenly, 60 is apparently the new 80.

(Source: "Who Are You Calling Elderly?", by Kathleen A. Hughes, Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2020, page A11).

The 64-year-old author would like to be identified with one in her 40s. She seems to think of the elderly as being in their 80s.

It seems that there is a negative association with the word elderly. Like middle-aged, elderly is a term that you would apply to others, but less-often to yourself.

"I'm vaguely hostile to the word elderly," says Thomas Cole, 70, a gerontologist and the author of "Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among Elders." "We live in an ageist culture and we have negative associations with words and images of old people."

Mr. Cole notes that the American Geriatrics Society has stopped using the word elderly. "If you submit a manuscript to them and you use elderly, they cross it out and substitute older," he adds.

(Source: op. cit.)

According to this article, yes, there is more of a negative association to the word “elderly” than to the word "old." Both the author and the American Geriatrics Society prefer "old" or "older" because of the negative associations with "elderly."

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    The OP is not asking whether the word elderly can carry some negative associations, but whether it carries more of them than old. – jsw29 Mar 18 at 15:35
  • I beg your pardon, but the OP (=me) writes at the end of his question, "Is there more of a negative association to the word “elderly” than to the word "old"? " . – Avrohom Yitzchok Mar 18 at 21:09
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    @AvrohomYitzchok Sure, but this answer doesn't provide evidence about the word 'old' only about 'older'. My own feeling is that 'older' is less negative than 'elderly' but 'old' by itself is probably more negative than 'elderly'. – Mitch Mar 18 at 21:39
  • @Mitch I hope that you would be able to extend the notion of older to encompass old. If not, perhaps you might see that Mr. Cole, who shuns the word elderly, preferred old in the title of his book. – rajah9 Mar 19 at 12:22
  • @rajah9 That's not how words work. Words as humans use them are not logical entities (or at least not stipulated mathematical substitutable single meaning entities). Each repeated utterance has its own associations. Surely 'old' and 'older' overlap in many more ways than either do with 'elderly' (for multiple reasons), but their implications and connotations can be very different. 'Old' is abrupt. 'Older' is relative and vague and therefore much less extreme than 'old'. – Mitch Mar 19 at 12:55
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Most of the other answers have discussed the difference in meaning when the two words are applied to people. It's also worth noting that elderly (almost) always applies to people*, while old can apply to pretty much anything that's been around for a while.

For example, we can talk about an old building or an old song but not an elderly building or an elderly song.


*The only exception I know of is that people will sometimes talk about elderly pets.

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  • They can of course anthropomorphise 'You can also use the adjective for animals or even inanimate objects that are getting old: "That elderly oak tree is going to have to come down." ' [Vocabulary.com] But this isn't really a propos to what OP is asking about, as shown in the body text. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 21 at 14:40
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When it comes to communication, intent counts for a lot. In clinical communications like that of your example, it is the denotation or definition that matters, not the connotation.

Here are some examples related to COVID-19, where I've highlighted some age-related words:

  • We understand your concerns, but if you buy only what you need and stick to the product limits, it helps everyone, especially the elderly and people with disability. - Coles Customer Notice

  • But it's the old and the vulnerable – might be people who are immunocompromised, might be people with conditions such as severe asthma or with cystic fibrosis – who are most likely to have a very adverse reaction to this. - Greg Hunt, Minister for Health (Australia)

  • Current evidence suggests that the most vulnerable people are those above the age of 70 and who have multiple health problems. - British Association of Paediatric Surgeons

Note that the terms "the elderly", "the old" and "those above the age of 70" are all used clinically.

You ask:

Is there more of a negative association to the word “elderly” than to the word "old"?

There is no sense that any of the terms in this context has a more "negative association" than the others.

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Elderly refers to age related physical/mental condition or capacity, while old is quantative.

For example you get "old age pension" at a specific age, regardless of physical health or capacity. You are "elderly" when you loose some subjective level of capacity you may have had in your youth.

It is not a matter of polite or derogatory synonyms - them have different meanings.

At 70 years, you are objectively and quantatively "old", depending on your state of health, you may not be "elderly".

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Elderly - a polite way of saying "of old age"

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    According to whom? Please add references to your answer. – CJ Dennis Mar 21 at 23:56
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Elderly sounds to me like a politically correct or at least polite word to refer to the unfortunate but widespread condition of us all aging. Since aging is unpleasant, people use politeness to be kind or to be hypocritical, or a little bit of both.

Old is just a quantitative, albeit subjective, judgement regarding other people.

Nothing wrong with politeness and, in a civilized society some PC or diplomacy are lubricants of human relationships, but it certainly needs to pass through the BS filter before processing.

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  • Welcome ondawoad. I disagree with: "unfortunate but widespread condition of us all aging" It is not unfortunate that we are aging. I want to get a lot older! You too, I imagine. – Avrohom Yitzchok Mar 22 at 12:35
  • Well, there is humor in both your comment and my response, of course. Widespread is an understatement. We all get old but, purely as a thought experiment, we probably would like to last, more than to get old, particularly with reference to the issues that make old age regrettable, arthritis comes to mind. As a matter of fact, I guess the use of euphemisms such as 'elderly' comes with the fact that we do not want to throw someone's old age to his/her face too much. – ondawoad Mar 22 at 17:33
  • Opinions do not make good answers. We prefer answers with references from reputable sources. – CJ Dennis Mar 23 at 3:54

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