The word youthful has become a sloppy shorthand for a number of other characteristics. The dictionary definition above gives us just a couple of examples: the implication that enthusiasm and optimism are inextricably linked to youth.
I think that’s wrong and dangerous. Why? Because it implies that being or seeming youthful is of itself a good and desirable thing. It creates an artificial polarity between youthful and – well what is the alternative? Oldful?
Last time I had my hair cut, a colleague said to me “That’s great, it makes you look ten years younger”. Which was nice of him, but the automatic assumption was that I would be grateful for the compliment. It was not that I looked more stylish, not that my hair suited my face better, but I looked younger.
Does this sound as if I’m being horribly militant or ungrateful or picking up on something unimportant?
I don’t think so. Language is vitally important. The point is that although we use words such as “wise” (or “feisty” – I love that one) to qualify “old” by emphasizing its gifts, the descriptive words “old” and “elderly”, and even “middle-aged” are used as kind of hopeless, factually correct pejoratives.
A couple of years ago, I dipped a tippy-toe into the world of online dating, and almost without exception, the descriptions I was looking at said things like “I’m 60, but people tell me I look young for my age.” All that tells me is that the writer is self-conscious about being the age they are.
Look at the picture above. We can’t tell how old this woman is, but how would we describe her? Full of energy, joy, fun? But there is such a temptation – I’m feeling it myself – to use “youthful”.
So what are the alternatives? Thoughts? Suggestions anyone?