Don’t dare call me a dotard!

What do you want to be called? You, me and the rest of us Of A Certain Age. What term for “old” is preferable? Or rather, which word is least unacceptable?

I am guided by the wise counsel of an American comedian who was cracking jokes 100 years ago.

“It ain’t what they call you, but what you answer to.”

W.C. Fields

Best – or least offensive – words for old

So which of these words would you answer to? Do you like the word, pensioner? This term is sadly inaccurate as a general description. Being old enough for retirement funding doesn’t necessarily mean you receive it.

Do you prefer senior? Or Senior Citizen? To me it sounds like pulling rank. What about elder? Seems pretentiously New Agey. Old-timer? Golden-ager? Words like that feel condescending.

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society recently ruled on terminology to describe the people they study. (The term Geriatric was not even suggested.) Its writers are required to use the term Older Adult to describe someone 65 or older. This imprecise cop-out begs the obvious question: older than what – or who?

Unfortunately, the options only get worse. Like geezer, codger, fuddy-duddy and fogey. Or fossil, crone and wrinkley. And now – to make things worse still – there is another term for older people which takes ageist epithets to a new low.
Thanks to two world leaders taunting each other to the brink of nuclear war, here is the latest word for a person of advanced age: Dotard.

definition of dotard

Offensive new – revived – word for old

It is the insult that North Korean leader Kim Jung-un recently used against US President Donald Trump. Kim was responding to Trump’s latest insult of him: Rocket Man. (Which prompted a new Trump nickname, Elton Don.) The word, dotard, was uttered in a high-level exchange in what should have been in carefully chosen diplomatic language – but was not, on either side.

The 33-year-old Korean called the 71-year-old American a dotard not once, but twice. Firstly, in Kim’s characterisation of his approach to Trump:

“Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.”

Kim’s second use of the word came in this threat:

“I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire!”

Trump and Kim on dotard

Ed Wexler / politicalcartoons.com

This caused a mass rush to the online dictionaries. Look up dotard in Oxford’s and you get this definition: “an old person, especially one who has become weak or senile”. The Korean-English dictionary in Pyongyang apparently defines the word as “a silly old man”.

Korean-English dictionary definition of dotard

definition of dotard in Korean-English dictionary

The origins of this obscure word are in that term for life’s late stage, dotage. Meaning “a period of senile decay marked by decline of mental poise”. Sigh…

Dotard, as in drunkard

Be sure to pronounce dotard correctly. The accent is on the first syllable. Pronounced as in “Doe (a deer, a female deer)”. Followed by “tard” – but not pronounced to rhyme with “hard”, as in the offensive epithet, “retard”. Pronounced instead as in “turd”, reminiscent of “drunkard” or “dullard”.

You see why I am so upset about this word getting back into the spotlight. It not only derides age, but conflates it to assume – cruelly and often incorrectly – that the older person concerned is suffering from dementia.

Dotard is a new vocabulary word for most English-speakers. Except those whose reading has taken them back several centuries. Olde English scribes like Chaucer and Shakespeare were wont to use the word. More recent writers, not so much.

“Dotard is one of those words that people have stopped using – like ‘presidential’.”

– US comedian Bill Maher

Fears that “dotard” will come back into fashion

My fear is that the use of dotard is now going to be back in vogue. Since this international intergenerational spat has served to revive one of the meanest of all the ageist names that can be hurled at us. After several hundred years of well warranted disuse.

I don’t know about you, fellow age-mates, but My New Old Self is taking this personally. The world did not need another insulting word to describe old people. But now we have one. And as with a nuclear warhead, I realise that I could well be in the line of fire when the D-word is deployed.

I wish I could chortle over the Tweets at Hashtag Dotard. Of course, I would rather gigglingly show you my favourite Dotard Tweet:

Hold my covfefe dotard Trump tweet

But I cannot see dotard as comical in the way that I howled at the Trump typo, still generating Tweets at Hashtag Covfefe.

I am torn as to how to best respond the the re-emergence of dotard. Should I speak out against its revival before it catches on? Or should I rather adopt the opposite strategy and not mention the word, in the hope that it will again fall into disuse?

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