A guide for journalists suggested that "people aged over 50 should be referred to as 'older people' or simply 'man' or 'woman' followed by their age.
So, I wonder if these two sentences are different:
Appropriations to care for the old.
Appropriations to care for the elderly.

I use "the elderly" when I refer to old people, but their ages were not specified, e.g. nurses take care of the elderly in hospitals.
but not "nurses take care of the old in hospitals"
I have never used the term "the old", because my English language teachers had never taught me this term.

  • 2
    judging by this NGRAM the term 'elderly' seems to have risen in use at about the time 'political correctness' was also rising. Before that, old people were just 'old'. Being over 50 myself, I'd rather wait another 20 years before being referred to as either, tbh ;) Jan 9, 2015 at 16:20
  • 1
    I'm not sure, and I'm not a native, but "old" seems a little bit 'heavy' to me too.
    – M.A.R.
    Jan 9, 2015 at 17:56
  • 1
    A related question: ell.stackexchange.com/q/44062/9161 It's not an exact duplicate but it does have an answer with more information.
    – ColleenV
    Jan 9, 2015 at 20:50
  • @Tetsujin, I think that's a specious association. "Elderly" gained prominence by people who were trying to be more careful about the rhetorical power of their word choices. "Political correctness" is a term that rose to prominence as reference to the way the USSR's communist party controlled public expression. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…)
    – wordsmythe
    Jan 9, 2015 at 22:19
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    To me (native AmE speaker), "elderly" has a connotation of frailty as well as age, and for that reason I think it fits better in the examples about nurses or care. But I may only read in that connotation because the word is used so much in those kinds of examples --- the dictionaries I looked at don't mention this connotation.
    – The Photon
    Jan 10, 2015 at 2:17

4 Answers 4


The sentences are not different. According to most dictionaries they have more or less the same definition when used as a plural noun.

They both refer to older people, but the primary difference is perception and interpretation. Generally speaking it sounds more eloquent to use 'elderly' than to use 'old'.

"The old need lots of extra care."


"The elderly need lots of extra care."

Using 'elderly' is a more polite, and sensitive way to address an aging population.

As far as how old someone must be to fit into that category, it's all subjective and relative so there is no definition for that. Whatever you consider old, is old.


Old comes from the Old English ald and eald, and all of these words have the same meaning ("aged").

Old escaped the i-umlaut, so it retained the back vowel and didn't become "eld". However, the comparative elder and superlative eldest underwent the i-umlaut, resulting in the front vowel in each.

Elderly is the adjectival form derived from the noun, and means something similar to "elderish," or "not quite an elder." This is different from old, which one becomes after being elderly.


For some reason I resent being described as elderly. I am old. And I am happy to be so. I see the term elderly as describing the traits of older people - or as some people perceive them. Being old means you survived to a greater age. I actually think I prefer using the term aged before using elderly - although in some instances it fits.


The following is the editorial policy of the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. The authors prefer the term "older" because it lacks the connotation of "frailty". "Elderly" is considered to be an "ageist" term:


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