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Grandmothers, Aunties, and Crones
Searching for loving names for older women
I got to join Emily Kearney on her Mothergood podcast to talk a little about Other Feminisms and interdependence. Next week, I’ll share highlights from your conversation about whether we make an idol of marriage.
Last week, I shared an article about Russian terms for older women (including “God’s dandelion!”), and I asked how you hoped to be described when you’re in your old age. I also asked where (or if!) you saw women you hope to grow up to be.
Catherine had to address similar questions in her classroom:
We talked about this in my translation class! I had my students work on Rosalía de Castro's novella Ruins, in which one of the main characters is an unmarried older woman. In order to figure out whether "solterona" (for instance) should be translated as "single woman" or "old maid," the students had to think about whether the narrative was judgmental and hostile toward this character and her status, or simply descriptive of it—and whether they wanted to reflect those attitudes, or subvert them. We learned a lot in this exercise. I wish I'd had the phrase "euphemism treadmill" in my arsenal back then!!
(Catherine also has a sporadic, lovely substack on questions of translation. Readers of this substack might want to start with her post “The ‘faithful’ translator is a misogynist concept.”)
Sophia had a real character in mind as her model:
Perhaps this doesn't count since it's fiction, but I've thought for years that I want to be Angela Lansbury's character in Murder She Wrote when I'm old. Not the detective work (I doubt I'd have the stomach for it!) but the independence, the kindness, the confidence, the willingness to trust others but also the ability to read others ... Anyway, that character embodies strong older femininity for me.
To answer the linguistic question: "old lady" was the way my siblings and I grew up talking about older women. I am fairly certain I wouldn't mind growing up to be an "old lady."
Mary H highlighted a feature of language I wish we had in English:
I've always liked the Spanish word viejita which is the diminutive of vieja, old woman. It sounds affectionate to me, but I'm not a native speaker so I could be mistaken about this. However, my parents used the word natively, and I never got the impression that it was negative or condescending. Same with abuelita, another diminutive which means, sweet, cute, or little grandmother. I associate viejita with those one or two little old ladies at church whose quavering voices stand out when the congregation is singing hymns in Spanish.
I imagine these diminutives stacked up against all the other cases: the nominative case, the vocative case, the ablative case, the tender case.
A case for tenderness seems like the best weapon against the euphemism treadmill.