The Grammarphobia Blog

A senior moment

Q: When did “seniors” take over the playing field as a replacement for “the elderly” or “the aging” or “retirees”? And why? Can’t stand that usage. Never have, even during my working years. Seems condescending when it isn’t applied to students.

A: The noun “senior” was used to mean an old person or an elder long before it was applied to students. In fact, this was the original sense of the word, but 600 years ago it didn’t have quite as broad a meaning as it has today. 

Back in the Middle Ages, when “senior” was first recorded in writing, it was a noun meaning an elderly person of a particular kind—someone who was not merely aged, but respected or venerated for that reason.

The noun’s original sense, the Oxford English Dictionary says, was “one superior or worthy of deference and reverence by reason of age; one having pre-eminence in dignity by priority of election, appointment, etc.”

The term, according to OED citations, first appeared in writing in the works of the 14th-century theologian and philosopher John Wycliffe. In a religious tract from around 1380, Wycliffe used “seniours” to mean church elders.

We found a few examples that are more secular. In his Fables Ancient and Modern (1700), John Dryden wrote: “Arriv’d, he first enquir’d the founder’s name / Of this new colony; and whence he came. / Then thus a senior of the place replies.”

Another poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, used the term in a similar way in his Threnody (1842-44): “Each village senior paused to scan, / And speak the lovely caravan.”

But it appears that “senior” wasn’t used much as a general noun for any elderly person until fairly recently. Our guess is that the wider usage has become popular because of the ubiquitous “senior citizen,” a euphemism born in pre-World War II America.

Oxford’s first citation for “senior citizen” is from a 1938 issue of Time magazine: “Mr. Downey had an inspiration to do something on behalf of what he calls, for campaign purposes, ‘our senior citizens.’ ”

As the OED says, this “term for an elderly person, esp. one who is past the age of retirement,” is frequently used “in official communications and by the media as a euphemism for ‘old-age pensioner.’ ”

(Speaking of euphemisms for the elderly, Pat recalls that back in the 1970s the phrase “super adult” made a brief appearance. Mercifully, it passed away, except in reference to porn movies and disposable diapers.)

Though “senior citizen” originated in the US, it’s established in the UK as well. The examples in the OED include several from British books and periodicals of the 1960s and ’70s.

We can only speculate that, as we said above, the popularity of “senior citizen” may have revived the old use of “senior,” but in a wider sense.

On the other hand, the current use of “senior” as a noun for anyone who’s elderly could be regarded merely as short for “senior citizen.”

We were about to close this post when we remembered that we hadn’t discussed the academic use of the noun “senior.”

(We may have had a “senior moment,” which the OED defines as a humorous colloquialism dating from the mid-1990s and meaning “an instance or short period of forgetfulness or confusion, such as might be experienced by an elderly person.”)

Anyway, the noun “senior” was first used in the early 17th century to mean an upper-level student. Today’s definition, according to the OED, is “one of the more advanced students” or, in American usage, a fourth-year student.

Appropriately, Oxford’s earliest example of this usage is from a schoolmaster. In his book Ludus Literarius; or, The Grammar Schoole (1612), John Brinsley wrote: “That the two or fowre Seniors in each fourme, be as Vshers in that fourme.”

The OED also cites an American example from The Customs of Harvard College, a 1741 manuscript copy of rules for new students. “No Freshman shall be saucy to his Senior.”

By the way, this amusing manuscript was eventually printed as part of A Collection of College Words and Customs, an 1851 book by Benjamin H. Hall. If you have any spare time, the manuscript makes fascinating reading.

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