"Senior citizen" sounds like something you'd mention to get a restaurant discount. "Mature" could conceivably apply to a well-behaved teenager. "Retiree" refers to a job status, not a life stage. "Old-timer" evokes a long white beard and overalls outside the general store. "Elder" sounds, to some ears, a bit artificially tribal. But tack on a "ly" and it's far worse -- in many people's minds, "elderly" might as well be a synonym for "frail."
So what the heck should we call people who are, um, you know ... old?
It's an increasingly fraught linguistic issue, with so many of us now falling into that category. The 2010 census counted 99 million Americans over 50, or nearly a third of the population. Depending on where you draw the line, the term might have to stretch to include everyone from AARP-eligible 50-somethings who grew up listening to rock and roll on devices that look only slightly antiquated today, to centenarians who can remember when their hometown was first wired for electricity.
Verbal landmines abound. In our youth-obsessed culture, few are eager to embrace labels that call to mind the very attributes we're busily Botoxing away. But reach for a euphemism and risk sounding cutesy or even condescending, as though aging were an affliction best disguised in distracting verbiage.
A 2007 survey of journalists uncovered some finely drawn distinctions. "Senior" was acceptable but "senior citizen" grated, "boomer" was fine but "baby boomer" raised hackles.
Baby boomers -- er, boomers -- that demographic behemoth heading into their 60s and 70s yet still haunted by a moniker that alludes to their infancy, are especially sensitive about terminology.
"The research shows that people who are boomers won't go to anything that's labeled 'seniors.' They don't think of themselves as seniors," said Jan Hively, 79, founder of the Minnesota Vital Aging Network and cofounder of SHiFT, an organization that develops opportunities for people at mid-life.
"Boomers," she said, carries overtones of membership in "a world-changing group." She also likes "older adults" and the dignified "elder," which to Hively suggests wisdom.
"Elder" is also a favorite of Ronni Bennett, 70, author of "Time Goes By" (www.timegoesby.net) a blog about aging. But she hates "elderly," which she finds widely used in the media.
"Elderly implies fragile, vulnerable, sickly," Bennett, who lives in Lake Oswego, Ore., said via e-mail. "It infuriates me when the media use it for anyone -- whatever their physical or mental condition -- older than, oh, even 50 sometimes."
She also strictly avoids phrases like "golden ager" or "80 years young." They may be intended to flatter, but Bennett sees them as infantilizing and ageist. She approves of the matter-of-fact "old people," though dismisses "older people" as "namby-pamby." But "elder" is her default term. Though to some it connotes village or tribal societies, she points out that modern Americans routinely use it in terms like "eldercare" and "elder abuse."
"It is both descriptive and respectful, and it is as neutral as child, youth and adult," Bennett said.
Like members of any marginalized group proudly reclaiming a former slur, thereby stripping its power to insult, some people cheerfully apply aging-related pejoratives to themselves. Texas author Ruth Pennebaker, 61, writes a blog called The Fabulous Geezersisters (www.geezersisters.com).
"When it comes to humor I really prefer self-deprecation, which allows me to control it," Pennebaker said. "I'm already making fun of myself, so you'd be too late to do it."
Still, Pennebaker has her own pet peeves. Like Bennett, she detests "60 is the new 40," "we're not getting older, we're getting better" and other patronizing falsehoods.
"You get waiters who come up to you and say, 'What do you want, young lady?' I just want to slap them."
If feigned obliviousness often misfires, apparently coming right out and calling a spade a spade is sometimes OK.
"I remember a couple of times, they called me a little old lady -- I just had to laugh," said Vivian Hempel of St. Paul, who is 98. "I suppose I am kind of little, and I am old, so what the heck."
Katy Read • 612-673-4583