Words to Age By: A Guide on Style and Usage

By Kleyman, Paul | Aging Today, November/December 2007 | Go to article overview

Words to Age By: A Guide on Style and Usage


Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today


"Frankly, I don't have a problem with senior," stated one newspaper reporter.

"I HATE seniors, and so does everyone I know" declared yet another journalist.

"Get rid of boomer, even if there is no great alternative" insisted a columnist.

"Baby boomer is actually a positive term-except for the younger boomers" opined a newspaper editor who once covered the age beat.

"I get letters objecting to the word old," noted a reporter.

"I don't use elderly, but it's a locally reviled term, although elder is OK" commented a veteran editor, who then advised, "Use old fart with caution"

The cacophony over what to call people in their middle and later yearsincluding the irreverent use of such' pejoratives as old fart or geezer in humorous or generationally self-effacing contextswas evident in responses ranging from somber to bemused from nearly 100 journalists who answered a Journalists Exchange on Aging (JEoA) e-mail survey about appropriate editorial usage in the news and information media on issues in aging.

The often contradictory responses should riot surprise anyone familiar with the rising concern about cultural identity evident in U.S. society and politics since the 19605. For all of the railing in recent years against language that is too politically correct, no one seems to shy away from seeming to he overly PC-or from denying any personal connection to a phrase in question-when it comes to his or her own groupings. Consider the white-haired man this editor recently spotted donning a T-shirt printed with the slogan "Geezers Rule." As for seniors, consider that the 2000 Myths and Realities of Aging survey by the National Council on Aging (NCOA) and AARP Andrus Foundation found that half of respondents ages 65-74 considered themselves to be middle-aged or young.

TWO CONCERNS

Journalists have two functional concerns about identity language in their daily tasks: to write clearly without verbal speed bumps that might impede readers ' understanding of a story, and to avoid enervating distractions that might result from readers' objections.

The goal of this JEoA survey, however, was not solely to inform reporters how to more adroitly dodge unintentionally volatile usages. The 99 responses86 completed survey questionnaires, plus 13 e-mail messages or appended articles about word usage in reference to older or midlife people-included many useful insights and at least a qualified consensus or middle ground in the application of many words and phrases.

The Journalists Exchange on Aging Survey on Style not only was aimed at helping writers select the more acceptable word choices for older people, but also was designed to distinguish the language of middle age, especially regarding the boomer generation, a growing cause for discussion.

The second purpose of this survey was to explore the subtle biases of associated, often descriptive terms that stoke stereotypes of people in their middle or later years. For example, a parachuting expresident in his 70s might be described as spry or feisty, terms never applied to younger sports parachutists. Such terms tend to beetle the brows of older article subjects by presenting a somewhat dismissive image of their bygone potency. Survey co-organizer Steve Slon, editor of AARP The Magazine, first recommended this focus for the survey during a JEoA meeting at the 2005 Joint Conference of the American Society on Aging and NCOA in Philadelphia.

The JEoA survey on style is published in a special 14-page issue of the group's publication, Age Beat, posted online at www.asaging.org/agebeat. It includes the two-page document "Words to Age By: A Brief Glossary and Tips on Usage," which is excerpted below. The glossary is also posted separately as a convenient tool for writers and editors. These documents, like language itself, are subject to updating; Aging Today invites you to submit your observations. Send comments to Paul Kleyman atpaul@asaging. …

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