The Ol’ “Olde” Gets Old

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Writers’ efforts to evoke a folksy or quaint sensibility by using a variation on the word old often fail because they use the wrong form. This post discusses the proper use of the variations.

When the intent is to simulate a drawl, the correct version of old is ol’, which follows the common pattern of dropping a word’s final consonant to relax pronunciation, as in, for example, rollin’ in place of rolling. This is the use seen in phrases such as “good ol’ boy” and in the song title “Ol’ Man River,” which alludes to the personification of the Mississippi River as an entity oblivious to the cares of the people who travel on it.

“Good ol’ boy” has positive and negative connotations in the American South and other areas; the positive sense is of a humble but well-bred man, though the pejorative sense of an ignorant and intolerant man is dominant. (In one region of England, however, the connotation is simply of a likeable man.) “Good ol’ boys’ club” or “good ol’ boys’ network alludes to an excessively insular group of men who discriminate against or ostracize others who are different or not associated with them. (The phrases were inspired by the British English notion of the “old boy network,” describing men linked by virtue of being alumni of certain prestigious public schools, with a similar but somewhat more elitist subtext.)

Ol’ is preferable to ole (not to be confused with olé, a Spanish exclamation synonymous with bravo! and, like that word, always punctuated with an exclamation point, which is nevertheless enshrined in the name of the Grand Ole Opry and in Ole Miss, the nickname for the University of Mississippi, as well as in the song title “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”

When establishing a reference to a real or imagined medieval sensibility, the archaism olde often appears in such designations as “Ye Olde Shoppe.” Olde dates back to a time when spelling was more flexible (and may reflect pronunciation during that era) and was revived starting in the mid-nineteenth century to suggest an air of antiquity.

Olde is valid, if a bit precious, but the word that often precedes it is misunderstood. Note that ye is not used here as an archaic form of you; it includes a variant of the obsolete English letter thorn, which resembles a mash-up of b and p and represents the soft th sound in the (as opposed to the hard sound in thorn). Therefore, it is correctly pronounced as the.

Olden is a variant of the adjective old, unnecessary except to lend a flavor of antiquity (as in the phrase “in olden times”). Auld, from an earlier pronunciation for old, was preserved in northern England and in Scotland; it’s best known as the first word in the song title “Auld Lang Syne” (in Scots, literally “old long since,” meaning “long ago” or “old times”). Old itself is often part of a nickname bestowed out of respect; among the recipients of such an epithet are President Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson, two naval vessels dubbed Old Ironsides because of their sturdy hulls, and the nursery rhyme character Old Mother Hubbard.

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6 thoughts on “The Ol’ “Olde” Gets Old”

  1. Old Man Winter.
    “My old man”, a father, a husband one married long ago, the boss.
    “My old woman”, a mother?, a wife one married long ago, the boss – usually not very respectfully said.
    “My old battleaxe” – definitely not respectfully said.
    “My old ball and chain” – definitely not respectfully said, of either a wife, a husband, a mother, or a father.
    “My old lady”, a mother, a one wife one married long ago, the boss – usually respectfully and even affectionally said. “Mein Weibchen” in German.
    “My little old lady”, a mother, a one wife one married long ago, the boss – always respectfully and affectionally said. Especially good coming out of the mouths of tall husbands, tall sons, and tall daughters. Also said, “Mein Weibchen” in German, or “Mein Weiblein”. Both “chen” and “lein” are dimulative endings for almost anything: “Mein Autochen” = “my little car”. “Mein Hauschen” = “my little house”.
    “My little old mama”, always respectfully and affectionally said.
    “My little old grandma”, always respectfully and affectionally said.

  2. Old Man Winter, Old Man Frost, Old Man Time, Old Bossman, Old Bosslady, .
    “The Old Man” – the General, Admiral, colonel, captain, major, commander, master sergeant, or chief petty office in charge.
    “The Old Man” – the professor, the department head, or the dean, when he really is old.
    “The Old Man” – the President, the Prime Minister, the King, when he really is old – Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, King Edward VII, King Louis XIV.
    “Der Alte” = “The Old Man” in German. This was the very respectful nickname of Konrad Adenauer, who was the Chancellor of West Germany for ages. Adenauer was so prominent not only for being wise, but because he was one of the few leaders in postwar Germany who had never been a Nazi. Also, his hometown of Bonn was chosen to be the capital city of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland: the Federal Republic of Germany.

  3. Sometimes, Robert E. Lee was referred to by his own officers as “The Old Man” or even “Granny” because of his white hair and beard during 1862-65.
    Then years later, came along “Old Blood & Guts”, General George S. Patton, Jr., of the U.S. Army in North Africa, Sicily, and the Western Front after D-Day in Normandy.
    General Douglas MacArthur was definitely “The Old Man” because during 1942-45, he really was old, because he had already served as the Chief-of-Staff of the Army, retired from the service, and gone to the Philippines to help the Filipinos organize their new Army, anticipating independence in July 1946.
    Then he really was old while he was the CINC of the U.N. forces in Korea during 1950-51.
    He was probably “old in the head” by 1951 when he started a public argument with President Truman. The President is the real Commander-in-Chief, and he had nothing to do but to dismiss MacArthur for insubordination and not following orders.

  4. Said very respectfully:
    This old flag; this old land; this old country; this old planet; going back to see the old country to see the old relatives; this old ship; this old house; this old forest; this old starship, the “USS Enterprise”.

  5. There is the pop song “My Old Flame”, in which the adjective “old” might be ambiguous.

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