Old Women on the Euphemism Treadmill
How we keep eroding respect for the elderly
Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Wonder Woman and models of feminine virtue as part of a panel at the Sheen Center. This Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of the final kind of care work—preparing the dead for burial.
My friend Ivan sent me this very charming article about different ways to refer to older women in Russian:
A very old woman is старуха, the mate (we hope) of старик (old man). As far as I can tell, many decades ago this word used to be neutral. But now it is rather crude. Much nicer is старушка, but even then, use with care. Гуляют в парке старики и старушки (Old men and women take strolls in the park) is something you might say to your friend, but maybe not in the presence of the person you consider старушка. And never use the word to describe a young woman: Лет ей ещё не было так много, чтобы глядели как на старуху, но набрякшие щёки, хилые губки, морщины ― всё было старушечье (She wasn’t yet old enough for people to consider her an old lady, but her puffy cheeks, thin lips and wrinkles were all old-womanish).
The diminutive старушонка (old dear) is also a bit tricky. In some cases, it’s rather affectionate: На длинной скамье сидели нарядные бабы и старушонки (Women and old ladies in their finery were sitting on a long bench). But there can be a bit of condescension or pity in the attitude of the speaker with this word, too: Кто-то потрогал меня за плечо ― я посмотрел: какая-то несчастная старушонка глядела на меня, морщась от жалостных слёз (Someone touched my shoulder. I looked and saw a rather pathetic old dear watching me, her face screwed up with pitiful tears).
I noticed right away that the words for old women seemed to be on a euphemism treadmill. That phrase was coined by Steven Pinker to describe the “process whereby words introduced to replace an offensive word over time become offensive themselves.” One of the common examples is “retarded” which was initially meant as a neutral term, but is now unacceptable because it has been used viciously.
Words wind up on the euphemism treadmill when we have contempt for the underlying concept or person. It’s hard to retain a “nice” word for an elderly woman if we think being elderly is somewhat embarrassing or obtrusive or disgusting.
The author, Michele A. Berdy, gives examples of more colorful ways to refer to older women, and it was interesting to read, imagining who I was likely to grow up to be:
And then there are five colorful words and phrases to describe older women, one for sweet old dears and four for nasty old bats.
Божий одуванчик (literally God’s dandelion) is a charming but rather condescending phrase to describe an older woman who is physically and/or psychologically a bit airy-fairy. Imagine a cloud of thinning hair and a distracted manner. Какая-то старушка, божий одуванчик, сидела на скамье и смотрела в пустое пространство перед собой (An old lady, a bit vague and moth-eaten, was sitting on a bench, staring into the middle distance.)
The four nasty old ladies have colorful names. The most obscure but expressive is старая перечница (literally old pepper pot) — an old woman who is sharp-tongued, feisty, and peppery. The neighbor lady who is not shy about putting any of us in our place for minor transgressions, like letting the front door slam shut, is the local старая перечница (grumpy old lady).
I love the sobriquet, “God’s dandelion” though I acknowledge I’m much more likely to become a pepper pot in my old age, or a battle axe (if I’m not one already).
Those words may be slightly negative in general usage, but I like their vigor. It’s more difficult for me to admire the slightness or wispiness of “God’s dandelion,” even if that may be who I grow up to be.
That’s my own pull toward the treadmill, where I have trouble using words for weakness, delicacy, and dependence as a positive or even neutral trait. Running this substack is part of how I work to correct that instinct.