Q: The NY Times recently referred to Ivanka Trump as Donald Trump’s eldest daughter. Why do we have two sets of words—“elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest”?
A: More than a thousand years ago, the Old English versions of “elder” and “eldest” were the original comparative and superlative forms of “old.”
They meant the same thing as the later forms “older” and “oldest,” words that didn’t come along until centuries after “elder” and “eldest.”
English tends to shed words it doesn’t need. But as the language developed, it retained both sets of adjectives—”elder”/”eldest” and “older”/”oldest.”
Why did all of them survive? Probably because in modern English, as we’ll explain later, we now use the two sets of adjectives—the “eld-” forms and the “old-” forms—for different purposes.
That’s the short answer. Now for some etymology.
This all began in writing back in the 700s with eald, the word for “old” in the West Saxon dialect of Old English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
This word was inherited from Germanic sources but can be traced even further back to prehistoric Indo-European.
The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots identifies the ultimate source of “old” as a verb root, al-, meaning to grow or nourish.
That same Indo-European root, the OED says, is also the source of the classical Latin verb alere (“nourish”) and adjective adultus (“adult “).
So the word for “old” in ancient Germanic “thus apparently originally meant ‘grown up, adult,’ corresponding in form to classical Latin altus (high, deep),” Oxford says.
(This sense of “high” in the Latin altus can be interpreted as “grown tall,” American Heritage says.)
When the adjective “old” first appeared in Old English writing 13 centuries ago, it was written mostly as eald or ald. (The spelling “old” didn’t appear until the 1200s, perhaps earlier, but alternative spellings existed for centuries.)
The OED’s earliest examples include this one from Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725. “Þær Hroðgar sæt eald ond anhar” (“There Hrothgar sat, old and gray-haired”).
And an early Old English glossary dating from around 800 translates the Latin word senex (“old”) as ald.
At that time, the adjective meant what it still does today: “Having lived or existed a long time; not young or new,” in the OED’s words.
Early on, a form of “old” was also used in Old English as a noun. It could mean an old person, a use that’s now rare. Or it could mean aged people or things in general, a use that has survived (“the young and the old” … “the new and the old”).
In the 800s, the comparative and superlative forms of “old” first appeared in writing—as early spellings of “elder” and “eldest.” As the OED says, they were derived from the Old English ald, or “old.”
In this example, ieldran, Old English for “elder,” is used without “than.” It comes from Consolation of Philosophy (circa 888), King Alfred’s translation of a work by Boethius:
“Ic ðe geongne gelærde swelce snytro swylce manegum oþrum ieldran gewittum oftogen is” (“I taught thee in thy youth such wisdom as is hidden from many elder wise men”).
And in this example “elder” (yldra) appears after “than” (þonne) in the predicate of a sentence. It’s from an Old English riddle in a collection known as the Exeter Riddles, perhaps from the late 900s:
“Ic eom micle yldra þonne ymbhwyrft þes oþþe þes middangeard meahte geweorþa” (“I am much elder than the world or the earth might ever become”).
In both of those cases, the word used today would be “older.”
The noun “elder” that means an older person—generally used in the plural, “elders”—appeared soon afterward, in the 900s, according to OED citations.
The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls this “elder” a “converted noun” derived from the adjective “elder.” This is the noun that we still use in phrases like “mind your elders” and “village elders.”
(In fact, “alderman” is a modern descendant of the Old English noun for an “elder,” ealdor; an ealdorman in Anglo-Saxon times was a high-ranking leader.)
The superlative adjective “eldest” was first recorded around 897 in King Alfred’s Pastoral Care, a translation of a work by Pope Gregory:
“Ðæt we gemyndgiað ðære scylde þe ure ieldesta mæg us on forworhte” (“That we renew and recall to mind the sin wherewith our eldest kinsman [that is, Adam] ruined us”).
Meanwhile, the now archaic noun “eld” appeared (written as ǣld or eld) in the late 900s. It was derived from early forms of “old” and once meant either “the age, period of life, at which a person has arrived,” or “old age, advanced period of life,” the OED says.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from the Blickling Homilies (c. 971): “Se wlite eft gewiteþ & to ylde gecyrreþ” (“That beauty afterwards departs and turns to eld [old age]”).
And this example uses “eld” in the more generic sense of “age.” It is from a life of St. Guthlac of Mercia, written sometime near the year 1000:
“Se halga wer in þa ærestan ældu gelufade frecnessa fela!” (“The holy man had loved many wicked things in his early eld [age]!”).
In the Middle Ages, there was even a verb, to “eld.” The verb, written around 1200 as ælden or elden, meant to grow old. This passage is from the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “Thou hast eeldid, and art of loong age.”
And around 1300, “eld” acquired other uses. The phrase “within eld” meant underage, and “of eld” meant “of age” or “of legal age.”
But “of eld” also meant “of old,” as in “men of elde” (c. 1540) and “times of eld” (1640).
The phrase was used poetically into the 19th century. If you’ve read Longfellow’s poem Evangeline (1847), you may remember its dramatic opening lines:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic.
The adjective “eld” (meaning “old”) was not recorded until the late 16th century, and the OED now labels it archaic or poetic.
Here Sydney Thompson Dobell uses it in his 1854 poem Balder: “Ye eld / And sager gods” (less poetically, “The old and wiser gods”).
Now let’s get back to those comparatives and superlatives, and how they’re used today.
“Older” and “oldest” came along in the 15th century, some 700 years after “elder” and “eldest.” And in modern English, they’ve mostly replaced their predecessors.
While “elder” and “eldest” have remained part of English, they now have very narrow uses. Some grammarians classify “elder” and “eldest” as “limiting adjectives.”
As George O. Curme writes, “limiting adjectives do not indicate degrees, but merely point out individuals” (A Grammar of the English Language, Vol. 1, 1935).
Otto Jespersen notes: “Elder and eldest have been largely supplanted by older and oldest, and are now chiefly used preceded by some determining word (genitive, possessive pronoun or article).” He adds that “they generally refer to persons connected by relationship” (Essentials of English Grammar, 1933).
In practice, this means that as an adjective, “elder” is used for people and not things. So we use phrases like “the elder sister” and “an elder statesman” (in which the adjective is a term of respect), but not “the elder chair” or “an elder vintage.”
In addition, the adjective “elder” is generally not used in the predicate—that is, after the verb. We don’t say “he is elder now” or “he is elder than Susan.”
In the predicate, however, “elder” may be part of a noun phrase (“he is the elder brother”), and it may be used in a construction like “he is the elder,” short for “the elder of the two.”
“Older,” however, can be used as a predicate adjective: “he is older now” … “he is older than Susan.” And either adjective can be used as a pre-modifier: “older brother” … “elder brother.”
One final note. “Elder” is traditionally used in reference to two and “eldest” to three or more. If you don’t want to raise any eyebrows, this is a safe rule to follow. But as we wrote on the blog in 2010, not all language authorities agree.