'Senior citizen' is a euphemism that just doesn't fit
LANCASTER, PA. — It's bearing down on me at the rate of 3,600 seconds per hour - that most important tear of Americans' calendrical page, that magic moment when my odometer hits 65.
To be sure, it's a nonevent, a figment of the imagination, less than a blip in a wink, a snowstorm in a glass paperweight, future schlock, right up there with crystal balls, tea leaves, and goat innards as an indication of anything.
But call me old if you wish. Just don't call me golden-ager, oldster, coot, curmudgeon, geezer, fogy, old-timer, prime-timer, retired person, mature American, seasoned citizen, silver fox, young at heart, chronologically gifted.... And please, please, don't call me senior citizen.
Unfortunately, I've already been called senior citizen for a number of years - usually not directly, but either by default (as when Amtrak automatically gives me a reduced fare) or subtly (as when the clerk behind the hotel desk asks if I "qualify for any discounts").
What's wrong with "senior citizen"?
For starters, it's a condescending, demeaning, patronizing euphemism. It is the latest incarnation in the age-old struggle to find a term for old that is linguistically, ethically, and most of all, politically correct. The problem with all euphemisms is that they have a short shelf life. The pejoratives "fogy" and "gaffer" were once words of respect, but they long ago lost their euphemistic sheen.
The other thing that's wrong with "senior citizen" is that it speaks of a homogeneity that does not exist. Indeed, the longer one lives, the more experiences one has and the more diverse one becomes. But "senior citizen" connotes shuffleboard and pinochle, rocking chairs and golf carts, frailty and dependency. There are far too many 70-year-old hang gliders, computer whizzes, and marathoners for the stereotype to have any validity at all.
I blame a lot of this on vote-hungry office-seekers and officeholders slobbering over "our senior citizens" in the belief that it is somehow bad politics to call old people old.
In my own state of Pennsylvania, the state government has, for the past three decades, duped its citizens of all ages into the world's biggest sucker bet, the State Lottery.
This invasion of what was once the exclusive turf of small-bore racketeers is cloaked in altruism. We are reminded at each night's drawing that "Lottery proceeds benefit senior citizens."
To drive the point home, the winning numbers are picked in the presence of a "senior citizen witness," who usually stands by gratefully, uselessly, and cluelessly in mute affirmation of the stereotype.
Substantiated statements that old Americans tend to vote more often than young ones ("the youngerly"?) are often followed by unsubstantiated statements about the "powerful senior citizen voting bloc."
And thus, this flawed logic goes, for any politician Social Security is the "third rail of politics."
Here, another stereotype emerges - senior citizens are greedy ninnies who will do anything to protect their monthly benefit checks. Personally, I would be interested in hearing from the candidate who says that Social Security ought to be need-based rather than an entitlement. There are many, many others like me.
Why this muddled nomenclature over how to distinguish those beyond a certain age from the rest of the society? Why must we have such a term at all? What's wrong with old?
Psychologist James Hillman points out that not only is old ("eald") one of the 50 most frequently appearing words in old English manuscripts, it nearly always is used positively and implies trustworthiness, value, and character.
Junior Citizens, hear me out! The American Heritage Book of English Usage traces the coinage of "senior citizen" back to a 1938 article in Time magazine. That makes it 66 years old. Time to retire it.
• William Ecenbarger is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.