The Grammarphobia Blog

A euphemism of a certain age

Q: How old are women of “a certain age”? Are only French women of that age? Can men be of “a certain age” too?

A: The expression “a certain age” is generally used now (often tongue in cheek) as a euphemism to avoid saying a woman is middle-aged or older.

However, masculine and unisex versions are not all that unusual. In fact, the earliest example we’ve found refers to “men of a certain age.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a 1754 issue of the Connoisseur, a short-lived satirical weekly in London, edited by the essayists George Colman and Bonnell Thornton:

“I could not help wishing on this occasion that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.”

The expression is used there to describe an older, unmarried woman, similar to the terms “maiden lady” (1700), “spinster” (1617), and “old maid” (1530). “Spinster,” which dates from the 1300s, originally referred to someone who spins thread or yarn.

The phrase “a certain age” was a work in progress during the 1700s and 1800s, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes referring to women, sometimes men, and sometimes children, animals, or things.

A search of literary databases indicates that the usage first showed up in English in the early 1700s and in French (as d’un certain âge) in the late 1600s.

The earliest English example we could find, from a 1709 book written by a London midwife, refers to “men of a certain age.”

In A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Elizabeth Nihell argues against “the utter impropriety” of men, especially young men, examining the “sexual parts” of women:

“It may perhaps be granted that men of a certain age, men past the slippery season of youth, may claim the benefit of exemption from impressions of sensuality, by objects to which custom has familiarized them.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, the expression was generally positive when used to describe men. The Earl of Chesterfield, for example, used it in a June 13, 1751, letter to his son, Philip Stanhope, to refer to men of substance and refinement:

“You would not talk of your pleasures to men of a certain age, gravity, and dignity; they justly expect, from young people, a degree of deference and regard.”

The phrase was sometimes used positively and sometimes negatively to describe women.

In Amatory Tales (1810), Honoria Scott uses it positively: “Mrs. Cleveland was a woman of a certain age, and handsome person; her understanding intelligent and cultivated; she had moved much in the circles of fashionable life.”

But in The Lady of the Manor (1831), Mary Martha Sherwood uses the term to describe “a vain woman who cannot condescend to grow old” and who needs a lot of help to keep up appearances:

“The Comtesse de V was a woman of a certain age, and she therefore owed to her perruquier, her perfumer (who supplied the various washes for her complexion), her milliner, and her femme de chambre, that juvenile appearance which she still had in the eyes of those who beheld her only for the first time.”

In Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens does a riff on the expression to describe a house: “A very old house, perhaps as old as it claimed to be, and perhaps older, which will sometimes happen with houses of an uncertain, as with ladies of a certain age.”

The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, edited by John Ayto, says “of a certain age” may have been inspired by the French expression d’un certain âge.

We suspect that Ayto is less than definitive here because the French expression showed up only a few decades before the English version.

Ayto offers this contemporary unisex example of the usage from a 2003 issue of Architectural Review: “Text … is in readable white sans-serif type … and happily for clients of a certain age, it’s adjustable with the browser’s View/Text Size command.”

William Safire suggests in his July 2, 1995, language column in the New York Times Magazine that the phrase was “repopularized” for modern readers by Women of a Certain Age, a 1979 book by the psychotherapist Lillian B. Rubin.

“When I wrote the book in 1979,” she told Safire, “the ‘women of a certain age’ were in their late 30’s and early 40’s. I think that has changed with the baby boomers and the lengthening of the life span. I’d say the ‘certain age’ has now moved to the age of 50 or 55.”

Safire’s column was prompted by a reader who’d been surprised by this headline in the paper: “3 Explorers of a Certain Age, Scaling Mountains and More.” The explorers were three men in their 80s.

It’s comforting to think that we may still be of a certain age when we’re in our 80s.

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