Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Watch your language

This week I'm at a Knight Center for Specialized Journalism seminar on aging. Or do you say longevity? How are we supposed to talk about old people? A number of speakers have talked about the inadequacy of the terms we use, usually "senior" or -- yikes -- "elderly." I've heard "pre-elderly," too. We in journalism lead and follow the culture with respect to language. We create trends and/or wake up to them. The aging we have always had with us, only pretty soon there will be more of them in this country as a percentage of the population (20 percent by 2025 will be over 65). A little word we unconsciously use about people who are older and doing things we don't normally associate with being old: ah, he's 82 and still playing virtuoso violin. The verbal culprit is still, because it bespeaks our values: we don't expect this to be happening when somebody is 82. Well, we are in the process of changing our expectations of what people who are older can do, because people who are older are also healthier than ever before. We shall see what they can still do. Thanks to Abigail Trafford, author of My Time and a veteran journalist, for this fine point about language.


Ashton Applewhite said...

i agree! i've stopped describing my project as a book about people over 80 who are [still] in the worforce. language is insidious!

MegN said...

This goes not only for old people, but for gender as well. All our inherent prejudices come out in language. If you've ever heard terms like "hir," you'll know what I'm talking about.