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The impact of ‘elderly’ & other English words
Dennis Wyatt

There are — by the estimation of various scholars — 250,000 words in the English language with perhaps 20 percent of them considered obsolete although they are still used from time-to-time.

It makes you wonder why some people can only come up with a few four letter words but that is another issue.

That said words have meaning. It seems like a straight forward observation but it isn’t. Words are sharpened by their context. Take them out of context and the interpretation can mean wildly different things. Skip a couple of generations and you get the same problem.

My grandmother would use the word “gay” to describe a happy time. Today it means something entirely different. 

Speak to someone face-to-face and your passion, tone, and even body language helps define or give clarity to what you are trying to communicate. If you type the same thing on social media not only does it lack that context but those reading it are likely to only read a snippet or — if they don’t have any history on what you’ve said before — paint you with a brush that is way off base.

An example is recent criticism I had about the conduct of what seems to be a growing number of people on bicycles flagrantly ignoring rules of the road and creating unsafe situations. One person that responded who was a tad strident slammed me for being anti-bicycle and hating bicyclists. He was calling a person anti-bicyclist who at one point in his life was logging back-to-back 10,000 mile years bicycling including commuting 22 miles round trip to work on days that I could. If I’m anti-bicyclist I’d love to hear what threshold it would take for someone to be pro-bicyclist.

What beings this up is a point a reader was making about my use of the word “elderly.” And before I go on it needs to be clear that Diane Van Wagner had a point from her perspective.

Words can and do conjure up specific and different reactions and images with various people. Besides government definitions, laws and terminology that place people 65 and older under the umbrella of elder law there are other factors at play with language whether it is current trends, regional or cultural influences, or generational.

In the case of the vicious attack on the 71-year-old that those who knew him described him as frail and elderly, the word “elderly” confers the fact he’s not a “strapping” 71-year-old. I know of a few guys in their early 70s that the suspect in Monday’s attack would not have messed with. Not because they were simply healthier and would fight back but because they could have probably cleaned his clock.

The word “elderly” conveyed the correct image. The man was a vulnerable target and I’d venture to say the cowards that attacked him determined that to be the case. 

I do agree with Van Wagner’s observation that simply being 71 years old doesn’t make one elderly. At 62 I don’t feel old at all. In fact I can make a solid case I’m “younger” today in terms of health and what I can do physically than when I was 18.

I wouldn’t go as far as one group exercise instructor that calls me “a beast” especially because I get the pains that can come with aging.

Over the years I’ve seen self-assured guys in their 20s come into group exercise classes with their girlfriends, talk big, and end up slinking out in less than 15 minutes trying to catch their breath or shocked they can bench press 200 pounds but they can’t do repetitive movements with `15-pound hand weights sandwiched between aerobic movements. They shouldn’t feel bad. I can’t bench press 200 pounds.

At 62 years you can call be elder but I probrably don’t fit the image that is usually conjured up when someone is called elderly.

Although I disagree with the point Van Wagner was making in this case, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t give it some thought. I’ll still use the word “elderly” when I believe it is important for the reader to understand the context. Unfortunately it is likely to be in similar stories where a person is older and frail and has been attacked. 

I do appreciate criticism regardless of how strident it might be as it can make you reflect and find a better was to explain things.

The best example is the term “illegals” used to describe people when they do not have legal standing or permission of our government to be in our country.

When Associated Press decreed it was an improper term to use and simply called such individuals “immigrants” I did not follow suit. That’s because the term “immigrant” has come to mean people who are legally in this country. Not pairing the word “illegal” with “immigrant” doesn’t clarify anything. It makes it murkier to all readers by being — do I dare say — politically correct.

One day a reader stopped me after an exercise class at In Shape to talk to me about my use of the word “illegal” to describe immigrants with no legal standing. It was a short and pleasant exchange. Based on her points after thinking it over and wanting to be factual in stories, I adopted for the term she suggested which is “undocumented.” They’re still here illegally but undocumented more precisely describes the crime as opposed to the catch-all term “illegal.” It is less inflammatory while at the same time being more precise.

Rest assured “elderly” is not an appropriate word to describe a 71-year-old unless it fits the situation.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.