I've often browsed the Historic Thesaurus for synonyms for woman, wife, mistress, prostitute, girl. Scanning these lists I think about our roles, sexuality, duties, freedoms. They remind me how language limits and liberates, how it compels me - like picking at a wound.
Last night a friend was helping me cut matted clumps from the fur of my ageing cat. She was describing conversations with a parent, the delicate to and fro of offering support, it being refused, the way it's refused, the push and pull of need, duty, kindness and frustration.
This morning, a news item warned Covid 19 may be around for five years. The interviewee was saying let the young mix, let them love and travel because they need to. The old (as well as the poor, homeless, unemployed, long-term sick) will be protected if people making decisions are doctors, scientists, public health experts - not politicians.
And for some reason, this more generous and compassionate approach took me back to lists I made after words for women - words for old, an old person, old people. They move between sweet, hilarious and cruel: wintered, over-old, eldern, ripe, oldly, well-aged, well-stricken, far, declined, grey, antiquated, badgerly, crusted, long in the tooth, mature, veneral, senile, gerontic, post-reproductive. An old person....ancient, elder, pelt, oldster, elderling, relic, wrinkly, crumbly, geriatric, veteran, Methuselah. Many old people: an ancientry, a more.
Jonathan Swift invented the Struldbrug, a category of old person above the age of 80. Since, in his story, octagenarians are immortal their powers are limited,
"As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge. After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal or economic, not even for the decision of meers (metes) and bounds." (Gulliver's Travels, 1726)
I'm proud to be a life member of the National Union of Journalists and in its bulletin on reporting age it reveals, "There are 500 words or phrases defining old, about 10 are complimentary while the rest are derogatory and many - as in 'old maid' - doubly insulting."
One of the striking differences in attitudes I noticed visiting South Africa was respect among Black communities for older people. And so my children learned it and I'm proud of the honour they show their two grandmothers.
In the ancientry I've joined there is potential for rebellion. I'll fight for my children's generation to have the freedom I enjoyed. But I won't be written off by narcissists clinging to the masthead of youth. The proverb says, old age, though despised, is coveted by all....or, every age has its book.