Meaning of ‘spry’ depends on age of ‘old fogey’

WHAT'S IN A WORD?

By Norman Knight

Becky received a text from her longtime friend Carole the other evening.

Apparently she had flown out to Utah to do some solo hiking. This did not surprise either of us because Carole is always up for an adventure, and she loves to be physically active on vacations. This need to be active is one of the common interests that unites them in friendship.

The text included a photo of an opening carved by the elements into a massive red rock wall. It was a nice shot, but then again, it is hard to take a bad picture in that magnificent space.

What prompted the text was an encounter Carole had had on the trail earlier in the day. A woman, “a grad student,” had commented that she thought Carole was “spry.” She said she had never been called spry before and was a little taken aback. A message like that obviously required more that a simple text, so Becky called to talk and get some details.

The young grad student didn’t seem to mean it in a bad way, they decided. Probably just the opposite: she was likely offering a compliment. After getting more details, Becky wondered if perhaps English was not Grad Student’s first language. Or maybe Grad Student hasn’t yet learned the subtle connotations that particular word carries.

They both decided that Grad Student should be given the benefit of the doubt. Language can get complicated sometimes.

Merriam-Webster tells us “spry” means “nimble,” while the Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “active and able to move quickly and energetically.” All highly complimentary descriptions of Carole, to be sure.

The problem is not with the definitions, it is with the phrases and sentences the dictionaries provide as examples: “an older woman who is still surprisingly spry;” “a spry 83-year-old with bright eyes and a pixie-like smile;” “A spry elderly lady was pulling weeds in her garden.”

Clearly, the definition doesn’t tell the whole story. Like many words, “spry” carries a more loose, emotional sense along with its dictionary meaning.

I think Carole was not so much offended as surprised by the spry remark. As a senior citizen myself, I know it’s a shock sometimes to be reminded that I am no longer a “spring chicken.” (Just to keep things clear, I am not claiming I was once a barnyard fowl. Actual spring chickens do exist, but I was using the term’s connotative meaning: “a person in the prime of his or her youth.”)

But maybe I misspoke earlier when I used the term “senior citizen.” According to both the International Longevity Center and Aging Services of California, referring to people over 50 as “senior” is just one more unfortunate example of ageism in our language.

These groups have compiled a media guide to discourage ageist language that stereotypes people who have attained a certain number of years. Two of the words to be avoided are “codger” and “fogey.”

I guess I can understand not wanting to be called an “old fogey,” although it makes me wonder if there is such a thing as a young fogey. However, I’m not sure I agree with the attempt to ban the word “codger.” To me, the word carries a more specific, nuanced meaning than just “old person.”

Yes, a codger is elderly (also a word the media guide discourages) and usually male, but I hear an added layer of meaning (i.e. “old-fashioned” or “eccentric” and probably “grumpy.”) Call me old-fashioned or eccentric, but I hate to see useful words abandoned thoughtlessly. Makes me grumpy.

The guide states that such ageist words carry the meaning that “older men and women are incompetent and lack sufficiency.” Well, maybe. But probably not if those older men and women are still spry.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.