Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Let's talk about old age.

When I turned 40, I sat in front of my birthday cake with four lit candles on it and I recited Yeats' poem to my kids, the crucial lines of which are:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

My wife remarked that I was probably the only person who would talk about my old age without blushing. It's a subject most people shy away from. And that's probably true. Old age is taboo in many cultures because everyone, including Yeats, knows that the soul may clap till it's sore and may sing till it's hoarse but an old man is still a tattered coat upon a stick. Old age is the unmistakeable mark of impending death and it's understandable if we don't want to be reminded of our mortality.

It's perhaps because we are so reluctant to talk about old age that when we do talk about it, we hum and haw and stumble over our words and we make all kinds of language mistakes on this subject.

Many years ago, I was rushing to catch my bullet train at a train station in Beijing. As I was running and lugging my luggage, I noticed a sign on the side of an escalator that stopped me in my tracks and compelled me to take a photo of it. I didn't know then if I would ever have use of the photo and I almost missed my train because of it. I'm glad the photo turned out pretty well:

Grammatical howlers appearing on signs and notices all over China are nothing new but is this really an error, hilarious though it may seem to most readers? What I have grown to realise over the years is that if you are caught out in some error on usage or grammar, you can usually justify your error by merely saying that it's standard usage in American English. And 'oldster' is very much accepted in the US even in situations where it's clearly not meant to be jocular. It's a North American informal word for 'an older person' and the examples of its use given in my dictionary are hardly humorous.

It's not hard to see what the origin of such a word is. It's obviously an analogous extension of 'youngster' which has been a part of the English language since the late 16th century. The first use of 'oldster' on record can be traced only to the 19th century but as most American dictionaries will proudly declare, it was penned by no less a personage than Charles Dickens. We have to be very careful when we are told that a famous novelist used a word. As anyone knows, a novelist portrays the characters they are writing about and a good novelist will have different voices for different characters. If  a character coins a word,  the novelist may have intended it for its comic effect or he may simply want to tell his readers that the character is illiterate. It is wrong to attribute a non-standard word used by an author's character to the author himself as if he endorses the use of such a word. A failure to distinguish the character's use of language from the author's understanding of what is Standard English may lead to the ridiculous result of a reader attributing to Sheridan all the malapropisms of his Mrs Malaprop as if Sheridan himself accepted them as a legitimate part of the English language.

The word 'oldster' was used by Dickens in his novel, Dombey and Son. It is placed in the mouth of Major Bagstock, a character who is not exactly punctilious in his speech. Here's the passage in which Bagstock is making a remark about Florence Dombey:
Major Bagstock...said of Florence that her eyes would play the Devil with the youngsters before long - "and the oldsters too, Sir, if you come to that," added the Major, chuckling very much...
Although American dictionaries such as Webster's are very quick to say Dickens was the one who first used the word, the context in which it was used, as I have shown above, puts it in a very different light altogether. Bagstock is speaking ill of Florence and even though Dombey is not all that fond of his daughter, it's natural that Bagstock had to make his criticism appear humorous. His chuckling after his speech should knock some sense into American lexicographers, even the more obtuse ones. 'Oldster' is most suitable when used as a jocular expression. It's likely that the Chinese railway authorities chose the word for its comic effect.

Now that I'm on the subject of old age, I should mention another sign I saw just a few days ago. This time, the word I'm going to examine is carved in stone and etched in metal and so the error (if it is an error) is indelibly a fixture in Singapore. But is it an error?

I am always reluctant to say that something is wrong just because it appears so to me. The English language is broad and versatile enough to allow for a myriad of different words and expressions to be used but which all mean the same thing or roughly the same thing. Unless someone's language errors are so abhorrent that they disgust even the common man on the street, such as the many examples I have given in this blog of the outrageous errors of Singapore's Speak Good English Movement, most errors can easily be overlooked and in some cases, they aren't even errors to begin with.

The Lion's Home for the Elders is an old folks' home.  The use of the definite article tells me that the person who came up with the name originally wanted to simply call it a 'Home for the Elderly' which would have been perfectly correct. But as I have said, old age is something people don't like to talk about. But calling it a home for the elders will only raise the question of what elders are we talking about? The Elders of what? But this is a charity home. The 'elders' here can only mean 'the elderly' or 'the aged'.

Putting aside the delicacy of the originator of the name (although I must stress that I do respect him for his consideration for the inhabitants of the home and his laudable intention to make them sound more respectable), the only question that should concern us here is whether 'elders' can today mean simply 'the aged' as used in this context. The common expressions such as 'respect for one's elders', 'one's elders and betters' and the attributive 'elder statesman' are quite different and they are to be distinguished from the 'elders' in a 'home for the elders'. For most people, 'Home for the Elders' would conjure up an idea of a different home altogether from what is intended because to most people, an 'elder' is not just an old person.

The scope of 'elder' whether as an adjective or a noun is somewhat limited by usage in the English language today. Can we turn to American English to save the name of an old folks' home? After all, no usage is ever wrong in the Land of the Free. What is Standard American English is sure to make inroads into all other Englishes and it's only a matter of time before all varieties of English accept it as standard.

As a matter of fact, 'elder' meaning 'older person' is quite acceptable in American English and is very widely used. Its attributive use in 'elder care' is probably gaining ground in other countries too because of its simplicity and its utter lack of ageism. I almost wrote 'ageistic prejudice' instead of 'ageism' but I thought I shouldn't take too many liberties with my readers although I have no doubt 'ageistic' will be a perfectly acceptable word long before my hair turns totally grey, if you will pardon my indelicate allusion to the taboo subject.

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