Wednesday, April 16, 2014


I hate it when I hear television commentators talking about older women and they use the euphemism "of a certain age". What the Hell is THAT age? Is it over 40; over 50; over 60?

Last year I heard it said TO Catherine Deneuve in an interview; although she handled the question deftly with grace and aplomb, I literally screamed at the television: "She's ageless--she's Marianne in France!" Marianne is one of the national symbols of France and during the history of the Republic of France, there have been sculptures, official seals, money, and stamps with the idealized female image representing Marianne. In the 20th Century, France began to choose living women to represent the feminine ideal of France. In 1985 Catherine Deneuve was chosen for that great honor. (CLICK HERE to see the article from The New York Times.)

I was at one of my birthday parties last year in a public place and I heard several "cutesy" remarks such as: "Are you 39 again?" And, "You probably won't admit your age." Even the waiter (whom I dislike), felt free to make an age-related remark. I'm glad I was being treated for lunch, because it would have been difficult for me to leave a tip--and I always tip--because of his inane remark. I have no problem telling my age, but I do wonder why people are so interested. I would never ask a person his or her age. I do wish I possessed Deneuve's sangfroid. (I could not refrain from using that perfect French word to describe Deneuve!)

See the article from Grammarphobia below.

A euphemism of a certain age

Q: How old are women of “a certain age”? Are only French women of that age? Can men be of “a certain age” too?

A: The expression “a certain age” is generally used now (often tongue in cheek) as a euphemism to avoid saying a woman is middle-aged or older.

However, masculine and unisex versions are not all that unusual. In fact, the earliest example we found refers to “men of a certain age.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes “a certain age” as a time “when one is no longer young, but which politeness forbids to be specified too minutely: usually, referring to some age between forty and sixty (mostly said of women).”

The OED’s earliest example of the usage is from a 1754 issue of the Connoisseur, a short-lived satirical weekly in London, edited by the essayists George Colman and Bonnell Thornton:

“I could not help wishing on this occasion that some middle term was invented between Miss and Mrs. to be adopted, at a certain age, by all females not inclined to matrimony.”

The expression is used there to describe an older, unmarried woman, similar to the terms “maiden lady” (1700), “spinster” (1617), and “old maid” (1530). “Spinster,” which dates from the 1300s, originally referred to someone who spins thread or yarn.

The phrase “a certain age” was a work in progress during the 1700s and 1800s, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes referring to women, sometimes men, and sometimes children, animals, or things.

A search of literary databases indicates that the usage first showed up in English in the early 1700s and in French (as d’un certain ├óge) in the late 1600s.

The earliest English example we could find, from a 1709 book written by a London midwife, refers to “men of a certain age.”

In A Treatise on the Art of Midwifery, Elizabeth Nihell argues against “the utter impropriety” of men, especially young men, examining the “sexual parts” of women:

“It may perhaps be granted that men of a certain age, men past the slippery season of youth, may claim the benefit of exemption from impressions of sensuality, by objects to which custom has familiarized them.”

In the 1700s and 1800s, the expression was generally positive when used to describe men. The Earl of Chesterfield, for example, used it in a June 13, 1751, letter to his son, Philip Stanhope, to refer to men of substance and refinement:

“You would not talk of your pleasures to men of a certain age, gravity, and dignity; they justly expect, from young people, a degree of deference and regard.”

The phrase was sometimes used positively and sometimes negatively to describe women.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sangfroid indeed! Of course I had to look it up! ML