Once upon a time in a mythical land, the hippest wordmakers and culture-watchers wanted to find new ways to describe the youngest members of society. They longed for a collective term that would include babies, children, and teenagers.
"Let's call them 'youngerly people,' " one wordmaker suggested brightly.
"We could even shorten that to 'the youngerly,' " another chimed in.
"What about referring to them as 'junior citizens,' or just 'juniors'? " a third asked. "Sure," the others agreed.
"The youngerly?" "Junior citizens?" "Juniors?" What kind of awkward language is this, anyway?
Well, no more awkward than similar terms Americans use to describe people at the other end of the age spectrum - words such as "the elderly," "senior citizens," and "seniors." None sounds exactly right to describe those in their, um, mature years. For all its richness and variety, the English language still has limits when age is involved.
Journalists and politicians often fall back on the phrase "older people," while carefully avoiding "old people," even if they're writing about centenarians. "Retirees" is another favorite. Their occasional reference to "golden-agers" is a bit too cute, bordering on condescending.
Now and then, reporters get it wrong. American newspapers sometimes run stories similar to one that appeared recently in The Times (London), which began, "Islamic gunmen are suspected of murdering an elderly British couple ... Richard Eyeington, 62, and his wife Enid, 61."
Elderly at 62? Surely the editors jest. The good news is that stories like this often elicit tut-tutting letters to the editor, rebuking the paper for feeding stereotypes. In a culture where people often look and act younger than they are, the definition of middle age is expanding.
So while being "youngerly" may not last forever, who can blame anyone for resisting the creaky term "elderly"? Even the American Association of Retired Persons has shortened its long, gray name to AARP. Presto! No more hint of anything geriatric in the title. Its publication, Modern Maturity, has been rechristened AARP, The Magazine. "Maturity" is obviously not a cool word.
Some American sociologists use the term "third-agers" to describe those between 55 and 75. But what happens after 75? Do we invent a category called "fourth-agers"? Already gerontologists divide the over-65s into the "young old" - those under 85 - and the "old old."
What do other countries call their older generations? People in England often refer to them as pensioners. In Germany, a common term is Senioren, or seniors. The French use senior, too, as well as person du troisième age, or person of the third age.
Perhaps it's time to think of new terms - ones that convey a greater sense of vitality to match the new possibilities inherent in the later years. But what word? Something snappy.
Tom Brokaw refers to those in the World War II era as the "Greatest Generation." Taking a cue, perhaps we could call them GG's. Then again, maybe not.
Or what about using Generation X and Generation Y as a model, calling those at a certain stage of life Generation R, for Retired - Gen R for short? Even that doesn't quite work.
What's in a name?
Plenty. Designations and images matter. They carry the power to shape attitudes and expectations in every generation, for better or worse.
Now that the latest AARP magazine includes a cover story on model Lauren Hutton headlined "Sixty is the new thirty" - an impossible dream, even for her - it's a sure sign that wordmakers need to sharpen their pencils and get creative.