Susie Dent

Susie Dent

… on “shibui” – the Japanese belief that age enhances beauty

This month the Countdown lexicographer points out how the evolution of language relating to ageing has often been unfair.

“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.” There’s surely no better musing on ageing than this one, from John Lennon. Many of us appreciate life is not so much about how old we are, but how we are old – or older. Language, though, isn’t always on our side. Take the word “senile”, for example. Born in Roman times, a senex was a wise old man, tempered by experience and brimming with knowledge gained over time. It is from the same family as “senator”, “senior”, “senor”, “senate” and “senorita”. Yet “senile”, another sibling, had by the late 19th century shifted from meaning “elderly” to “infirm” and, for added cruelty, “mentally incompetent”.  

“Geriatric” has had a similar trajectory. Based on a Greek word for growing old (a “gerontocracy” is a state governed by older people), to call anyone geriatric now is as good as declaring them past it.  

All of this seems unfair when many of us are discovering that with age comes wisdom as much as wrinkles, spontaneity not senility, and energy as well as (possibly) elasticated trousers. In fact, we have gained sagacity, a word based on the idea of a “keenness of scent” and which today means good judgment and a profound insight. Sagacity is the father of the “sage” who is profoundly wise and intelligent.  

Other cultures have long recognised that good things come with age. Take the word aylyak, from Turkish, meaning “idle”. It has been given a deeper meaning by the Bulgarians, for whom it means a Zen-like state, in which life is taken at a relaxed pace. Older generations are good at aylyak, having given up what the Germans call Eilkrankheit, “hurry sickness”, the state in which we chase our tail daily to get things done. Aylyak is the opposite: it’s the art of taking things easy.  

In Japanese, the aesthetic of shibui is a lesson to us all, describing a subtle, understated beauty that only increases with age. It can be applied to anything from a wrinkled face to a time-honed piece of wood. Ultimately shibui isn’t trying to be anything, or anyone. It is about finding beauty in the overlooked and the apparently ordinary.  

With age comes wisdom as much as wrinkles, spontaneity and energy as well as (possibly) elasticated trousers

Admittedly, some of the terms used for the elderly in other countries are more teasing than admiring. Take the umarell from Italy’s Bologna, where there is a phenomenon in which elderly men stand to watch activity on building sites or at roadworks, hands clasped behind their back, offering a commentary to anyone who wishes (or not) to hear.  

Of course, we’re good at mocking ourselves. Anyone over 50 might well declare themselves “long in the tooth” – an expression that originally referred to a horse’s set of teeth: as the animal ages, its gums recede, making its teeth look longer. (This is why we should never look a gift horse in the mouth, as it would be rude to assess the age of such a prized animal given as a present.)  

Then there’s the nickname for pensioners in Liverpool: “twirlies”. It’s said this was created by bus drivers to describe the older people turning up for free travel before the designated time of 9am. They were “too early”, or “twirly”. Language can shape how we view others as much as reflect it. So here’s a suggestion: why not throw out the “neolithic”, “fossilised”, “rusty”, “moth-eaten”, “senile”, and “geriatric” labels? We may jokingly use them of ourselves, but then it might encourage others to use them, too.  

Instead, let’s harness the positivity. We are the sage ones, honed by a life of experiences and adventures. I love to think of that weathered but polished piece of wood, worked on and smoothed by loving hands over decades. Ditch the senile, let’s be more shibui. 

Susie Dent

Written by Susie Dent