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What’s in a Name?

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A well-known line from Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet begins, “What’s in a name?” Juliet ponders this when she learns the man she loves bears the name of her family’s sworn enemy. And so she reasons, since she’s crazy about Romeo, his name is inconsequential: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called.”

But anybody who’s read the play knows that such a naïve assumption plays its part in the star-crossed lovers’ tragic end. Names matter. They confer meaning and significance and expectation. Would a rose smell as sweet if it were called anything else? So far we don’t know, because that’s all we’ve ever called it. But it’s hard to imagine it being called anything else, isn’t it? We name objects, people, and groups and those labels stick, building with them associations and generalizations that typify a word. But what happens when the word in question isn’t a matter of smelling as sweet, but sounding as…stodgy?

Enter the term “senior citizen.”

AARP’s recent Disrupt Aging Newsletter featured an article titled, “Is it Time for the Phrase ‘Senior Citizen’ to Fade Away?” with the telling sub-heading, “But what should we say instead?” Its author, Christine Burke argues that “Nowadays, ‘senior citizen’ conjures images of nursing homes, walkers and dentures.” Taking issue with the term, she’s not the only one. Her generation’s made enough noise about “senior citizen” that the AMA Manual of Style has even piped up, recommending writers instead use “elderly,” “older,” or “geriatric” when appropriate.

But her point truly hits home when she quotes the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: “The public associates aging almost exclusively with decline and deterioration.” And the question that logically follows is, will changing the name we associate with those 50 and older, change what we associate them with—nearing life’s end, and eventual demise? Will calling someone an “older person” instead of a “senior citizen” lead younger people to view and appreciate their elders differently?

As with Juliet’s question about a rose, we won’t really know until we try, will we? Terms are tricky—they’re necessary to a degree for helpfully categorizing populations by consumer activity, economics, demographics, and much more. But they’re also often generalizing, stereotyping, and unhelpful because they paint with a broad brush a body of people and concepts that are so much more nuanced than our categorizations seem to allow for.  

Perhaps the answer is that “senior citizen” as a term does need to be left behind, in as much as our antiquated notions about aging itself need to go as well. Being “senior” or “older” still means you’re at your life’s midpoint or beyond. It just doesn’t have to be something we associate with slowing down or existential denouement. The modern-day older population is demonstrating its presence and vigor in society, proving more than ever that life in later years is full, robust, and brimming with potential. And maybe once our culture better grasps that, we’ll find a word that captures just how much life has to offer as we age.

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