Recently I (and at least one other person) commented on a Medium article that was attempting to use “geezer” in a positive way. Elsewhere I’ve explained why I’m so appalled that people would use the term, which the dictionary associates pejoratively with “cranky old men.” This article attempted to apply the term to brilliant, accomplished women.
The article’s author replied graciously. She understood why some of us objected to the term. She’s trying to normalize the expression, the way other groups have transformed terms like “black” and “queer.” LGBTQ movements have transformed the meanings of the term “gay” and given a new context to the word “pride.”
As my curiosity was. roused, I discovered the topic is extremely complicated. “Reappropriation” of insults has been recognized as a controversial topic in the field of linguistics:
Reappropriation, reclamation, or resignification is the cultural process by which a group reclaims words or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group.
I don’t see the term “geezer” being reappropriated for these reasons.
(1) Changing the meaning of a term requires a movement seeking to destroy the stereotypes of a whole culture.
Successful efforts to reclaim words seem to emerge from a larger movement seeking to transform the image of. the group. For gay, Black and female cultures, we saw parades and movements. There were deliberate efforts to change painful stereotypes. We’ve also seen examples with Native Americans, e.g., changing. the name of the Washington Redskins.
Some words that are now seen as insults were originally intended as neutral or positive. Some words have been partially reclaimed: they’re acceptable only when used by members of the group.
If you’re the only one attempting to use the term this way, you’re a pebble dropping quietly into an ocean. You need many people doing this to create a wave, or at least a few people as famous as Gloria Steinem.
By way of analogy, imagine that you decided to refer to another group by a derogatory name. You explain, “I don’t mean to use the word that way.” Now you’re back to Alice In Wonderland where a word might mean whatever you want it to mean.
(2) Sociologists have pointed out that stereotypes of aging are more resistant than other stigmatizing stereotypes.
Part of the reason is that some “older” people embrace and reinforce the stereotypes.
You won’t hear a feminist say, “I’m female so don’t expect me to be good in math or engineering.” You won’t hear a Black person say, “I’m Black so you can expect me to be good in basketball and bad in scholarship.”
But you will hear someone as young as 50 say, “At my age I need to slow down.” Or, “At my age, I deserve to retire.” The truth is, you’ll find 90-year-olds running marathons and people of all ages who’d rather keep working.
Additionally, other groups seeking identity transformation want to be seen just as people. They don’t want to be labeled, for instance, as “disabled.” They want respect and dignity.
All too many older people want to reinforce the stereotype
It can be amusing (in my book I call it “playing the age card”) but ultimately it’s hurtful to many who don’t embrace the stereotypes. Not everyone over a certain age takes five meds a day, can’t bend over to pick up a coin, or wants to retire. As geriatricians like to say, “If you’ve seen one 80-year-old, you’ve seen one 80-year-old.”
(3) Not all terms of insult have been transformed.
According to the Wikipedia article, some scholars suggest that when we transform a word, we restore its original complimentary meaning. Others note that some transformed words were never positive.
An HBR article points out that many words remain offensive to people with disabilities; examples include “lame” and “crazy.”
Associating watermelon with Black people is still considered an insult. I won’t quote some terms that are still rejected by Black, feminist and gay people.
In her book, Spinster, Kate Bolick seeks to transform a term applied insultingly to single women. A lot of us like to identify as “broads” or even “old broads. Gloria Steinem transformed the word “bitch,” saying, “It’s something to be proud of.” Yet feminists don’t identify as “girls” or “sluts” or even “young ladies.”
Embracing these transformations means giving the word a new meaning. A spinster is a woman who’s happily unmarried. A bitch is a woman who’s not afraid to speak up and take the consequences.
What’s the new meaning of geezer? Someone who’s past a certain age? Is the intention to replace terms like “elder” with “geezer?”
How about asking, “Is age a necessary qualifier here? If not, why bother?”