Older vs. Elder

By Mark Nichol

Which comparative adjectival term meaning “more advanced in age” is more correct in usage? Many people still prefer to use elder and its superlative eldest, but they tend to be, well, older; the choice of that last word is becoming the alternative of choice.

One reason is that there is no word eld to serve as the basis of elder and eldest; it seems more sensible to many to progress from old to older to oldest. (There, are, however, other comparative/superlative pairs with no related basis: better and best progress from good, and worse and worst regress from bad.)

More significantly, though, is the grammatical limitation of elder: One can write, “He has an elder brother” and “He is the elder of the two” but not “He is elder than John.” (The prohibition isn’t logical, but it’s there.) In addition to “He has an older brother” and “He is the older of the two,” conversely, “He is older than John” is considered proper.

Another limitation is that elder and eldest apply only to people, but older and oldest may refer to people and inanimate objects alike. Also, although elder and eldest may refer to relative age within a family, the terms are not applied in other social contexts (besides isolated applications such as “elder statesman,” which refers to a wise and experienced but not necessarily older politician or other authoritative figure): One writes, “He is the eldest brother” but “He is the oldest child in the school.” (Keep in mind, too, that though elder and elderly imply advanced age, one does not need to be long in the tooth to be the elder of two siblings or the eldest of three or more.)

Elder is descended from the Old English word eldra, which refers to a parent or other older person. (The etymology of the name of the elder tree is unrelated.) The usage in “Respect your elders” shows its age, but the term is still employed in a religious context to refer to church leaders; an older term for church elders, presbyter, is from the Greek word presbyteros — which means “elder” — by way of Latin. (Presbyter was ultimately altered to priest.)

Elder is sometimes seen in genre fiction such as fantasy novels to impart a romantic cachet to a bygone era: “Long ago, in the Elder Days . . . .”

Elderly persists as both an adjective and a noun (“the elderly”), though some consider it demeaning and prefer older as a simpler modifier and “senior citizens” or just seniors to refer to the demographic. Interestingly, the Old English predecessor of the adjective, ealdorlic, had several superlative senses: “authentic, chief, excellent, princely.”

Older and elder, as you may have guessed when you were younger, share an origin: They both stem from a Germanic root that produce the variants ald and eald. (Adult and adolescent are related words.) The former term survives in alderman (once also ealdorman), a quaint alternative to “council member” that persists mostly in the Northeast United States and originally meant “chief, ruler,” and in the Scottish auld — as in “auld lang syne” — another variation.

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10 Responses to “Older vs. Elder”

  • Deborah H

    What a great article today, Mark. Thank you. Younger is obviously the opposite of older, but is there an opposite to elder?

  • Lena

    @Deborah – I think Younger works as an opposite to both Older and Elder.

  • Don

    There is no word eld? Someone forgot to tell Longfellow, who began his poem “Evangeline” with these lines:

    This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
    Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
    Stand like Druids of eld….

  • Sally

    We still have ‘aldermen (even female ones!) in Australia.

    From childhood one of my favourite books has been Sellar and Yeatman’d “1066 And All That,” a humourous history of Britain with clever wordplay and many references to Shakespeare and other UK literary figures. In the section about the Scandinavian invaions occurs this lovely snippet:

    “By this time the Saxons had all become very old like the Britons before them and were called ‘ealdormen.’ When they had been defeated in a battle by the Danes they used to sing little songs to themselves such as the memorable fragment discovered in the Bodleian Library at Oxford:
    OLD-SAXON FRAGMENT
    Syng a song of Saxons
    In the Wapentake of Rye
    Four and twenty ealdormen
    Too eald to die…
    Anon.”

    [The ‘fragment’ is set to the metre of the UK chidren’s rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence…” (q.v.). A ‘wapentake’ is an administrative district … ironically ‘wapentakes’ are found mostly in the north-east of England, in the areas of *Danish* settlement, whike Rye is in the south-east, in an Anglo-Saxon area.]

  • Sally

    Ooops, typos!

    Yeatman’d” for “Yeatman’s” and “whike” for “while.”

  • Jim

    Hi, Mark. Great article, as others have noted! I disagree that adult and adolescent share a common etymology, however. From what I have read elsewhere, the root is PIE *al- found in ‘alumnus/a’ and ‘alma mater’. Both ‘adult’ and ‘adolescent’ stem from the Latin verb ‘adolesco’, meaning “I grow up”. My personal (but unverified) theory is that this ‘adolesco’ is formed from the the prefix ‘ad’ plus the base verb ‘olo’/’oleo’, both variants meaning “to smell, to stink, to be ripe”. Thus, with the incohative ‘-sc-‘ suffix, an adolescent present participle) is one who is “becoming stinky (or ripe)”, while an adult (past participle) is one who has “become stinky (or ripe)”!
    I happened upon this article while trying to discover when ‘older’ and ‘oldest’ began to supplant the inherited ‘elder’ and ‘eldest’. This is the best article yet, but I’m still none the wiser in re my original goal. If anyone has a clue, I’d be happy to be informed! From what I’ve learned, the form ‘ald’ is the Anglian predecessor of our ‘old’ (West Saxon ‘eald’), and the comparatives ‘ieldra’ and ‘ieldest’ those of our ‘elder’ and ‘eldest’. I assume that ‘older’ and ‘oldest’ are back-formations from ‘old’, but I’m curious when these first appeared. Even if no one has any light to shed on this, I’m so happy to see such a curious and informed community here online. Thanks!

  • Jim

    Update! Naturally, I should first have checked my copy of the OED,but laziness initially prohibited. According to the OED, the leveling was already in progress c. 1200, with the appearance in writing of the word ‘alder’. So, here’s for those others who are curious, recorded now in cyberspace for all eternity or until our spy agencies stop archiving web pages!

  • Greg

    “Younger is obviously the opposite of older, but is there an opposite to elder?”

    That reminds me of Frank Costanza in Seinfeld. “You got your hen, your rooster, and your chicken. The rooster is having sex with the hen. Who’s having sex with the chicken?!”

  • Greg

    This article is completely wrong. Elder is not a synonym for older–while the two mean the same thing, they are not interchangeable. Elder is used for groups with some relationship. If you saw two men on the street, you would not say “The elder man crossed the street.” That would be just wrong. Look at this sentence from a short story I just read:

    “The brothers were mirror images of Mark and me, six years older——Norman, the elder, was the drunk.”

    See? The two brothers are both OLDER than Mark and me. At the same time Norman is the ELDER of the two brothers. Elder is used in very specific ways. Younger people might not use it correctly, of course, but that doesn’t make the word “elder” antiquated.

    Rewrite the above sentence using only older. It sounds very awkward and wrong:

    “The brothers were mirror images of Mark and me, six years older——Norman, the older, was the drunk.” Bad. Wrong.

  • venqax

    @Jim: You seem to contract yourself: I disagree that adult and adolescent share a common etymology… Both ‘adult’ and ‘adolescent’ stem from the Latin verb ‘adolesco’, meaning “I grow up”. Doesn’t the last mean they DO have a common etymology?

    @Greg: The article doesn’t say that older and elder are exact synonyms. It cites examples of where older can be used but elder cannot be. The example One writes, “He is the eldest brother” but “He is the oldest child in the school.” is the same as yours. It is true, though, that in many cases where elder or eldest is used, older or oldest would work fine: “He is the oldest brother” is not wrong. Likewise your example, “Norman, the older, was the drunk”, is neither wrong nor awkward. Stylistically, I would prefer elder too, but that is a different matter. I don’t know what you think the article gets “completely wrong”.

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