I became aware of the Whorfian hypothesis—that a language structure profoundly influences the way we think—in an undergrad linguistics course in 1961. I was 20 then. It’s entered the popular consciousness in simplified form: language structure, grammar, vocabulary reflect and influence its societal nature. More Inuit words for the varieties of snowfall, all that, or the subject/verb structure as the enabler of Western imperialism. Not that this has many practical applications: you use the tools you’re given for what you’re given to do.
But saying anything about language is like painting a picture of the sea. Try to capture a perpetually changing face, it can’t be done. And how do we corral a concept that has no verb, like Peace. Doing peace? Waging peace? Imposing peace? Fomenting peace? Just lying there, not even being a Who? A classic poster, Help Stamp Out Violence, brings up the same dilemma.
What brings this to mind, though, is a simpler issue of vocabulary. I was in process of composing a query letter to agents for our new novel CHEMO, just completed. Whole books are written on how to write a query letter—a literary genre in itself—so as if writing a haiku or a greeting-card verse, you strain your head to squeeze out every word. And so I flipped to the thesaurus to find a single adjective that suggested “acerbic” and “old.”
But it held that same danger as crossing the street in London—you look the wrong way, you get slammed by an omnibus. Perhaps if I weren’t 76 I wouldn’t have noticed, but as it was, the first entries in the thesaurus slammed me full fifty yards and wrapped me around a lamppost.
The synonyms for “old.” Positive: venerable, experienced, seasoned, mature. Neutral & non-judgmental: elderly, aged, antique. senior, hoary (perhaps), olden.
Then, down to brass tacks:
Decrepit, gray, tired, fossil, broken down, debilitated, enfeebled, exhausted, geriatric, getting on, impaired, inactive, infirm, oldish, not young, over the hill, past one’s prime, senile, superannuated, wasted, antiquated, archaic, obsolete, old-fashioned, passe, primeval, primitive, primordial, timeworn, antediluvian, dated, fusty, moldy, obsolescent, old hat, old-fangled, old-fashioned, out-of-date, outmoded, outworn, bedraggled, creaky, crippled, dilapidated, doddering, feeble, fragile, frail, haggard, incapacitated, quavering, ramshackle, rickety, seedy, shabby, tottering, tumble-down, decayed, faded, fallen-in, impaired, run-down, used-up, worn-out, long-in-the-tooth, declining, no spring chicken. . . I could go on. Though I do kinda like “unimproved.”
Perhaps worse are the adjectives that indicate youthful cuteness: spry, zippy, feisty. I would infinitely prefer to be haggard than to be feisty.
These linguistic riches are grounded in many things. The sense that at a certain age you’re no longer of use, a drag on the economy. The Sixties expansion of a “youth culture” and desire to break with the past. The belief that “innovation,” the god of the 21st century, comes only from 20-somethings. Revolt from our fathers and mothers. The concept of “greedy geezers.” The godhood of competition, where old people seem to be standing in the way of those who really deserve their jobs. The decline of listening as an art form. Much else.
I feel this personally, of course. Not to the same degree, as long as I have Elizabeth in our mutual admiration society. But if you haven’t become “a name” in your profession by the age of 76, you may be respected, you may even be an inspiration to various others, but no one really wants to work with you. Agents for your fiction can’t expect to be nurturing a money-making client for the next forty years. You slide slowly into invisibility.
It’s a waste. The same waste that’s afflicted us with sexism over hundreds of years. As we have slowly accepted the multifarious gifts of women, we have garnered gifts. There have been myriads of women who, I would venture to say, have been perfectly content with their lot to make cheese and infants and woven fabric. Likewise, countless men who want nothing more than to retire with a cup of coffee and golf on weekends. We should respect these people for their struggle simply to exist. But there are also those who have something more to give after the age of 65. Or to say it more assertively: something more to give than they had at age 64.
We must question the thesaurus.