One Word After Another – James A. Autry

When in Doubt, Laugh

I went in for a physical checkup the other day and my doctor, trying to be upbeat (I think), said, “My father used to say, ‘There are three stages of life: youth, middle age, and you look great.’ ”

Then, smiling he said, “You look great.”

At least he didn’t say, “For your age you look great,” even though that’s what he meant.

I am never offended by being reminded of my age. I just don’t like to be called “old.” On the other hand, I hate all the cute euphemisms people come up with.

So for those of us who are, you know, uh, not as young as we once were (who is, for that matter?), we are faced with a vocabulary challenge. If we’re not old, then what are we? We can’t be young. That’s just plain silly for those of us who, you know, uh, definitely don’t look as young as we once did. (Who does, for that matter?)

So are we “aging”? (Who isn’t, for that matter?)

It’s even worse to say “aging gracefully.” I know a man who responds to that by saying, “Gracefully hell, I’ve never done anything gracefully, and don’t intend to start now.”

It seems society has come up with all kinds of euphemisms for old: graying, long in the tooth (that’s a strange one considering how many of us have no teeth at all), elderly, senior citizen, or in the golden years (a highly debatable description). Ugh.

At the airport a few years ago, a security person told me I’d no longer have to remove my shoes because I was “75 years young.” I wanted to ask if the terrorists are now retiring at age 75. But I figured it’s never a good idea to use the word “terrorist” at the airport.

My wife has a different reaction to the little age-related rituals. For instance, she buys her rum at Hy-Vee because they “card” her as if she is not yet 21. She happily produces her driver’s license.

Sometimes people resort to descriptions like spry or still active, or worse, acts younger than his or her years. These terms make it seem as if we are astounded that some of us are still up and moving.

So, younger people, when referring to people who are, you know, uh, beyond middle age, I offer just a few do’s and don’ts. Also some do’s and don’ts for the elders in how to respond.

DON’T call anyone “old-timer.”

Inappropriate response: “And when exactly was that old time? You mean any time prior to 1995?”

DON’T talk about your grandparents.

Inappropriate response: “Let me tell you how clueless and irresponsible my grandchildren are.”

And DON’T talk about politics.

Inappropriate response: “Do you think all this madness just started? Let me tell you about politics back in the day …”

You get the idea. So, you old-timers, er, elders, just try to understand that these young people think they are being helpful or are trying to make a connection of some sort. The appropriate response, one that will make them think you might actually have something interesting or useful to say, is this: “I’m sorry, but my hearing aids are on the fritz today.”    

Then let them try to figure out what “on the fritz” means.


Mississippi native James A. Autry (jamesaautry.com) of Des Moines is a well-known author, poet, musician and business consultant who has written 14 books on such topics as gratitude, servant leadership and his Southern boyhood.

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