Monday, October 29, 2007

Elder, older, eldest, oldest

Listening to Évelyne Bloch-Dano talking about the Proust family, I noticed that she referred to Proust as an "older brother" and then excused and corrected herself: "elder brother." And there was I, a native speaker, wondering: What's the diff?

I checked my "Fowler's," H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern Usage (ed. Sir Ernest Gowers, 2nd ed., 1965), and found this compact explanation:

elder, -est. These forms are now almost confined to the indication of mere seniority among the members of a family; for this purpose the old- forms are not used except when the age has other than a comparative importance or when comparison is not the obvious point. Thus we say I have an elder (not older) brother in the simple sense a brother older than myself; but I have an older brother is possible in the sense a brother older than the one you know of; and Is there no older son? means Is there none more competent by age than this one? Outside this restricted use of family seniority, elder and eldest linger in a few contexts such as elders meaning persons whose age is supposed to demand the respect of the young, and as the titles of lay officers of the Presbyterian Church, the elder brethren of Trinity House, the elder hand at piquet, and elder statesman.
A check of Google Book Search reveals that the distinction between eld- and old- is preserved in the New Fowler's Modern English Usage (ed. R. W. Burchfield, 3d. edition, 1996).

Elder, older, eldest, oldest, let's call the whole thing off.

comments: 7

Anonymous said...

Amen to that.

lesle said...

Let's just wait a minute before you call the whole thing off... I, too, am a native speaker, originally from rural central Ohio and now over 50 years on the Gulf coast.

I have three sisters, all younger than me. I refer to the oldest of these as my oldest sister.

But, if I had one and only one sister older than me, I would refer to her as my elder sister. And my middle sister as the oldest of my younger sisters.

And if I had more than one sister older than me, I would refer to the oldest as my eldest sister.

Got it?
Been a while since I've read the Fowlers; somewhere in there is the man who drowns because he called, "Help, help, I shall drown," instead of, "Help, help, I will drown." Or vice versa, I forget which.

lesle said...

Michael, clicking on Fowler's under tags on this post gets 187 posts tagged Fowler's, the first page of which begins with Live: Liverpool vs Cardiff City (Team) and ends with Exclusive! Kevin Spacey is dating a woman! and nothing germane to your post inbetween.

OK by me, just so you know.

Michael Leddy said...

Yes, got it, and thanks, Lesle, for the examples. I didn't really mean to dismiss them; the paired words just reminded me of Ira Gershwin's lyric.

Question: If someone says "my older sister," do the words lead you to assume that there's a younger sister too? Would you hear "older" instead of "elder" as implying "not younger"?

Michael Leddy said...

Well, I'm glad someone's representing the Fowler's in the Technorati world. : )

lesle said...

Good Questions!

To me, if someone says "my older sister," yes, I would presume that there's a younger sister.

And now we start down the slippery slope: if someone says, "an older sister," I would presume that that sister is older than the speaker (UNLESS the context implied otherwise, as it could). Note the difference: "MY older sister" vs "AN older sister."

Answering your second question, would I hear "older" ... as implying "not younger" [than me]? Not necessarily. For me, this is like those visual perception silhouettes that first you see one way and then the other way. So if it was not clear in the context of the conversation, I would just have to ask. As discussed above, if "elder" sister were used instead, I'd presume she was older than the speaker.

This is just me, of course; others may "see" differently, and that's OK by me. By the way, I'm aural dominant; I "hear" the words, and rhythm, when I'm writing.
To me, presume means I believe it; assume means we're speaking hypothetically. Again, that's just me.
I not only got the Gershwin lyric, I couldn't get the words and music out of my head for a while.
"The Fowlers" refers to the brothers Fowler; there were at least two, who together wrote "The King's English," which I think (many of my books are not immediately at hand) preceded "Modern English Usage." And here's a case where I could equally say that I don't remember which one was oldest, or that I don't remember which one was eldest, and have it mean the same thing.

God, I love the English language. I heartily recommend the blog Language Log
Happy Halloween!

Michael Leddy said...

Lesle, I meant my second question as a rephrasing of the first: does "my older sister" suggest that the speaker has another and younger sister? I.e., "my older sister, not my younger sister." That nuance helps me get the elder/older difference.

I didn't know the story of the brothers Fowler; knowing a little of it makes the informal singular title "Fowler's" seem rather sad. Wikipedia says that Henry was older.

I'm going to stick by "assume" in that sentence above: "to take as granted or true."

I wish I had more time to keep up with Language Log -- like falling into the rabbit-hole.

Happy Halloween to you too; thanks for reading and commenting.