My first appearance in the New York Times, and my name gets mangled beyond recognition. I suppose it's what I deserve, wasting valuable energy articulating a point that no one really needs to hear. But William Safire has made a career out of doing just this, and I have confessed already to my unhealthy preoccupation with his "On Language" column (see my 3QD article here). Anyway, I try to archive everything in this space, the discouraging along with the promising. So here it is:
by William Safire
May 6, 2007
“In your discussion of the term age-appropriate,” writes Prof. Erik Smith of Concordia University, Montreal, “you identified Harrison Ford as ‘middle-aged.’ Mr. Ford is 64. If he were literally middle-aged, then he could expect to live to 128. By describing themselves as middle-aged, are not those in their 60s and even 70s guilty of some rather overoptimistic math?”
This was one splash in the responsive deluge that followed my mild observation that it was “age-appropriate” for a middle-aged actor like Ford to play opposite a female actor (formerly “actress”) of about 35 or 40. “That may be age-appropriate for Hollywood,” Hank Walker e-snorted, “but around here that age gap only shows up in second-marriage husbands with first-marriage wives.” J. R. Taylor of Washington offers good advice: “It may be time for On Language to address the parallel to academic ‘grade inflation’ that now infests the language of aging.”
O.K.: thinking linguistically and not statistically, how old is middle age? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “between young adulthood and old age, now usually regarded as between about 45 and 60.” Other lexicographers stretch the period down to 40, which — if you take middle as the halfway point of life — presumes we think we’ll live to 100. Longevity trends suggest that happy day is on its way, but we’re not there yet.
The 40th year, however, keeps popping up as the start of life’s transition from youth to age. “Life Begins at Forty” was Walter Pitkin’s 1932 book, and the upbeat phrase remains part of the language no matter how old the population gets. At the same time, that number has long been a reminder of realism: in an 1808 letter to his consort, the Empress Josephine, Napoleon Bonaparte reported: “I have been to a ball at Weimar. The Emperor Alexander dances, but I don’t.” Then he added this reverberating subjective truth: “Forty is forty.”
Set aside all the individualistic assertions about being only as old as you feel and accept that to most people, the meaning of middle age is “40-ish, 50, pushing 60.” The question to quiescent boomers then becomes: Are you willing to be described as middle-aged? If you’re 40-ish, your answer is “not yet”; if you’re over 50, your answer is a shrug, sheepish or defiant; if you’re into your 60s with people smarmily telling you how well you look, you’ll readily settle for the description “middle-aged.”
A few intrepid souls embrace both the phrase and the period of life. Mary Karr, for example, the perceptive poet and professor of English at Syracuse University, has published best-selling memoirs of her childhood (“The Liars’ Club”) and her youth (“Cherry”); she recently invited friends to her birthday party with a card that proudly announced, “Fifty Is the New Thirty.”
In their heart of hearts, however, most people in their middle years — in the fourth of Shakespeare’s “seven ages,” when those ambitiously soldiering on in that halfway age seek “the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth” — wish there were some less pejorative phrase than middle age. That’s because the noun, by virtue of its use as a hyphenated compound adjective in middle-age spread, creates nail-nibbling self-doubt amid visions of muffin-top midriffs and the realization that paunchiness precludes raunchiness. Here is where the urge to euphemize begins.
Old people, let us remember, have blazed an age-euphemism trail. By endowing decrepitude with attitude, the nation’s set-set have insisted upon a venerable vocabulary, a soothing avoidance of reminders of retirement reality. They have much to teach their uncomfortable generational followers in the art of label-escape; let’s see if any of their alternative monikers can be modified and transferred.
Senior citizen, alliterative and vaguely patriotic, pepped up a lot of graybeards for decades before it was derided by whippersnappers who are now edging toward such seniority themselves and wish they never hooted at the phrase. Unfortunately, neither sophomore citizen nor junior citizen fits the middle-agers.
Nor does the golden years offer a ready paradigm for the pre-goldens. The silver years is unsuitable because it symbolizes gray hair, anathema to the middies, and the balding years, though surely age-appropriate, seems unnecessarily self-flagellating.
Prefixes don’t work; the aforesaid pre-golden as well as pre-elderly is flat, (though pre-geezer has an insouciant quality). A better possibility is built on oldster, which was coined on the analogy of youngster; that suggests the future development of midster, though its confusion with mister would pose a pronunciation problem.
The answer, I think, is a word that has an impeccable coinage source, John Keats, in his 1818 poem “Endymion”: “Then up he rose, like one ... / Who had not from mid-life to utmost age/ Eas’d in one accent his o’er-burden’d soul.” It pops up in poetic citations from Tennyson to Dylan Thomas, but really made it into the language in 1965, when Elliot Jacques wrote “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis,” about “the crises which occur around the age of 35 — which I shall term the mid-life crisis — and at full maturity around the age of 65.” This male sense of impending doom and need for thrashing about has given mid-life a bad name.
Euphemism? Nay, a usefulism. Midlife (forget the hyphen) without the crisis attached is an accurate, untainted word for the midlifer’s generational sojourn between youth and age. Depressed by the term middle-aged? Toss it out. As a vigorous, mature midlifer, you own your vocabulary; it doesn’t own you.
I’m 77 and a half; to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Ah, to be midlife again.”