Saturday, June 27, 2009

Old, older,oldest

On Wednesday, 28 February, 2001, Japan's oldest twin Gin Kanie died, aged 108. She and her sister Kin (left) were national celebrities.

No doubt about it, she was chronologically old! She was also the oldest.

You can see the difficulty here. From Latin grammar books I learned that adjectives have three forms:
1. positive (e.g. heavy or sweet or old)
2. comparative (heavier, sweeter, older)
3. superlative (heaviest, sweetest,oldest)

Trouble is, the word old now has two meanings: chronologically old and old in spirit. Chronologically old has slunk out of use. We deny it, like fools, in favour of old in spirit.

It's funny, I can have an objective conversation about this semantic oddity with some of my friends but not others. Last Monday, for instance, a friend said, "You're not old. You're just older." It was clearly intended as a compliment, but since when was older younger than old?

It makes my head spin. Old is the new young? There's no such thing as old? Do we grow older, then old, and finally become the oldest — in our street, if nothing else?

Actually, it makes a kind of crazy sense when you consider the terms positively old, comparatively old and superlatively old. We don't progress in that order.

We start by being comparatively old, that is, a bit older than we were a few years ago, or yesterday. Then at some point, we can be classified as positively old. Finally, if we live to 108, that certainly qualifies as superlatively old.

But for most people, this will be the progression:
Positive: older
Comparative: old
Superlative: dead.

Being old is heaps better than being dead, surely. I think I'll join the Old Pride movement, if it exists.

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