Random word usage inquiry of the day..

During my rather constant intertubes consumption today, I ran across the quote (I think on Andrew Sullivan’s page but maybe just on facebook…) by Oliver Wendell Holmes that went so:

To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old.

And it got me to thinking about that turn of phrase–to be old or young that is used here as a means of being clever.

Specifically, think of the sentence:

I am twenty-five years old.


I am old.

In these two sentences, the word “old” has a very different purpose in the sentence.

In the second, it is a clear predicate adjective that renames the subject. So I becomes “old”.

In the first sentence, however, the I does not become what we would consider “old” (well, at least the majority of the population…).  Thus, it interests me as to how it came to be used in context. One might note, however, that the grammar usage of “old” in this sentence is a bit different.. it is more of a modifier of 25 years rather than a direct pedicate adjective renaming the subject.  For example, one could just as easily say:

I am twenty-five years of age.

.. and “of age” clearly is a modifier of years..

So.. this made me go look the damn word up in the OED and that clarifies the matter.  Old comes from an old english root “alan” which meant “to nourish” to “grow up”, and specifically, old is based on the past participle of that verb.

Thus, to be “old” means to “have been nourished” or “to have grown up.”

Thus “I am 25 years old” means “I am 25 years nourished” or “25 years grown up” which makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, the word “young” seems just to mean “not old” or “not having lived a long time.. and thus to say “I am 25 years young” ==”I am 25 years not old” doesn’t fit fundamental structures of usage nearly as well–and it therefore usually only appears as an implicit humorous usage to contrast with old-ness.

Overall–I don’t mind growing old.  Yes, there are definite trade offs and things of youth that will be missed.. but the fact that I’ve survived 38 years of nourishing and have not yet been eaten by bears…. I see that as a good thing each and every day…

ps–I find it fascinating that this topic as more and more all somehow come back to relate to eating..


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4 Responses to Random word usage inquiry of the day..

  1. Keith Graves says:

    All of the original meanings of old were used as verbs rather than adjectives. ‘To nourish’ may have evolved into ‘to have been nourished’. However, given its Proto-Indo-European beginning, I think that it may have been meant literally.
    To be old is to nourish and to grow the others around you.

    • tricstmr says:

      Well.. but “old” is based on the past particple of “to nourish” which means distinctly that its meaning is “to have been nourished.”

      Like in any other verbs..
      present: I nourish
      simple past: I nourished
      past particple I have nourished

      So in that sense.. it is actually something between what you and I are talking–if taken literally–and what it means is that you have fed others in the past.. which generally implies that you have become parents…

      The simple way of finding this term as a noun is to talk about one’s elders

  2. Keith Graves says:

    Was there a distinction, originally, between ‘to have nourished’ and ‘to have been nourished’? I think that in its current form there is a great difference between being an old man and a man being old.

    This is exactly the philosophy of nom.
    It is the difference between a man who has eaten and a man who has been eaten.

    • tricstmr says:

      First off–thank you for the NOM observation.. .it is very true that whether one has eaten or has been eaten is all about the core question that this blog is trying to get at…

      Getting to your points–meaning wise–the grammatical distinction has long existed in indo-european languages between these two usages–which I think fall under the rubric of “modes” (although that may be a subjunctive thinger…).

      Basically–“to have nourished” is a past participle construction that is in active voice, while “to have been nourshished” is a past participle construction that is in passive voice.

      Now.. those two modes are pretty different in terms of how “agency” is handled… and who is doing the acting.
      Your example is perfect for this..
      The man has eaten the bear. <–active sentence, Man=subject, Bear=object.
      To make this passive directly– then it would be "The bear has been eaten (by the man)."

      Of course, if you flip it around differently: "The man has been eaten (by the bear)." then you are totally changing the sentence meaning by altering the subject from man to bear in the original construction…

      as for "old man" vs "the man being old"–that's a syntax/semantics thing that is just language specific–and it changes over time… we only see a difference there because we've chosen those particular constructions to have those connotations… when you put the adjective in front–then it seems to imply a permanent state of being "old man" is constantly old, where as "man being old" seems to set up a situation where you realize that he wasn't always old… If you try this with other adjectives–"hungry man" vs "man being hungry", thirsty, blue, intelligent, etc… one sees this more clearly–but I do think that "old" is a somewhat special case–in that it, in itself, is a time descriptor and the structures we are looking at in your example are time differentiators… and thus there is some "play" in the construction that comes from overlapping/overdetermined meanings that can make the constructions a bit more amenable to poetry… for example–a "man being old" is a somewhat unusual way of putting it–for the reason that one generally isn't seen as being able to just stop being "old" in the next moment–unlike say, being hungry, blue, thirsty, intelligent…

      This comes down, in my view, to where language starts to bump up against physical realities of our linear, unidirectional perception of "time"… which is a state of affairs that is different than temporary color changes or hunger pangs…

      Thanks for the comments, by the way–it appears that you are the only one so far to start interacting… feel free to make suggestions for topics..

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