Are You Old or Just Elderly?

Elderly is a tricky word.

In North America, it’s used as a euphemistic — or at least less harsh — way to say old. Example: The elderly are considered among those at the greatest risk of contracting the coronavirus.

What the threshold age is for that is more difficult to determine. Sixty years is the number generally seen in relation to COVID-19, but otherwise it might be set at 65 or higher. Sixty-five is the new 55?

A further complication is that usage of the word is different in the United Kingdom (and perhaps Australia, New Zealand and other dominions beyond the seas). There, it is used to mean ’not old, but getting up there’. The -ly suffix operates like -ish or -like, essentially.So, anywhere from about 50?

North Americans seem not to like referring to harsh realities like old age: a senior citizen here would be an old age pensioner (or OAP) in the UK.

And heaven forbid that anyone should mention death in Canada or the USA; people now pass away or even just pass, both dreadful, mealy-mouthed circumlocutions.

That happens in the UK too, of course. It used to be that people who had completed their studies at Oxford (gone down, in university parlance) were called old members, regardless of age. Now they are alumni, the American, academic, Latinate, age-neutral term. The cricket and rowing teams for Magdalen College alumni are still called the Withered Lilies, however — a reference to the flowers, in more flourishing condition, found in the college arms.

A colleague recently bristled when someone described her as elderly, but perhaps the person using the adjective was British, in which case it was accurate.

But I didn’t point that out.

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. “mealy-mouthed circumlocutions”. Love it. I enjoyed the read. Thanks, Neil!

  2. Maryellen Symons

    Thank you, Neil. I am tired of euphemisms. They get in the way of truth, and they get in the way of real empathy and compassion.

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