A bit long in the tooth: words and phrases for talking about old age

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by Liz Walter

The Bible says that most of us will live for ‘three score years and ten’ – in other words, 70 years. Nowadays however, most people consider 70 the beginning of old age. This is probably why although the word sexagenarian (person from 60-69) exists, we rarely use it – being in your sixties is nothing remarkable. However, the slightly formal terms septuagenarian (70-79), octogenarian (80-89), nonagenarian (90-99) and centenarian (100 or over) are used both as adjectives and nouns: The dinner party included several octogenarian men.  She was a nonagenarian when she found fame.

They say that growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative, but old age is still a sensitive topic for many people, which is why although we may talk about ‘old people’ or ‘an old man’ privately, we would rarely use such blunt words in public or directly to the person in question. The most common, softer synonym is elderly: She cares for her elderly mother.  In medical contexts, the word geriatric is used: He works in the geriatric unit. ‘Geriatric’ is also sometimes used as a derogatory word for someone who is too old and weak: The company is run by a group of geriatric idiots.

Slightly formally, we sometimes refer to elderly people as senior citizens (in US English also just seniors): Some companies offer discounts to senior citizens. This is a respectful term, but the phrase be having a senior moment is a humorous way of saying that someone has done something foolish such as forgetting something or becoming confused: She went for her appointment on the wrong day – I think she was having a senior moment.

The humorous phrase a bit long in the tooth means that someone is old, usually in the context of being too old to change their ideas or do something new: I’m getting a bit long in the tooth to go back to school. More cruelly, we could talk about someone having one foot in the grave, meaning that they are close to death: He looked like a man with one foot in the grave.

There are also some positive words associated with old age. We talk about old people being spry or sprightly, meaning that they are healthy and energetic: She is a sprightly 94-year-old. We also talk about people doing things at the grand/ripe old age of (number), meaning that we are impressed that they are still able to do whatever it is: He’s still swimming in the sea at the grand old age of 89.

In my next post I will look at a closely related area: words for people or things that are old-fashioned or past their best.

22 thoughts on “A bit long in the tooth: words and phrases for talking about old age

  1. Maryem Salama

    this reminds me, in someway, the phrase cutting his teeth, but I am not sure about any possible link between them!

    1. Liz Walter

      We talk about someone cutting their teeth on something to mean that this is where they first learned something, e.g. He cut his teeth on a local newspaper.

  2. Lucas M

    Thanks you a lot ! We were working on the topic “Physical appeareance” with my students and they asked for other words than “old” to refer to elderly people. I just gave them the word “elderly” as a softer adjective to talk about them. I’ll share this post with them .

    Thanks again!

    Greeting from Argentina !

  3. H Harrison

    Love your posts Liz! How about ‘He/she’s seen better days’ and ‘He/she’s a bit frayed round the edges.’

  4. Mateusz

    Dear Liz Walter,

    Another bow to you for the contextual linguistic journey.

    Incidentally, thinking on the same subject, whiile translating a text on the elderly I have come across the term ‘the aged’ and was wondering whether it has the same ring as ‘the elderly’. Or slightly less polite?

    Always in awe of your writing style,

    Best regards,

    Mateusz

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks for the kind words, Mateusz. I think ‘the aged’ is definitely less polite, and would probably only be used for the very old.

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