The difference between ‘old’ and ‘venerable’

President Trump was incensed. “Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me ‘old,’” he tweeted, “when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat?’”

Let’s put aside that question mark, which should been outside the quotation marks after “fat,” and the fact that, at 71, the president is a senior citizen by most definitions, and the fact that The Guardian reported last year that Kim Jong-un weighed about 286 pounds, which means he would have to be at least 6 feet tall to not be considered obese by United States standards. The only “fake news” in Trump’s tweet is about Kim’s height: He is reported to be five foot seven, which is slightly above average by North Korean standards, if Wikipedia and those reporting his height are to be believed.

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Instead, imagine that Kim had called Trump “venerable.” We can envision the president’s preening on Twitter. To call someone “venerable” is a sign of respect, after all, right?

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Except that for many people, “venerable” is just a synonym for “old.”

“The Alamo Heights area has its roster of venerable restaurants, and therein lies the rub,” a Texas restaurant review said. “Venerable. Also known as ‘established,’ ‘respected’ and — dare I say it? — ‘old.’” Another Texas report about a football game said “Taylor’s venerable Memorial Field will be the site of what could be a memorable game in the stadium’s finale.” (The stadium is about 100 years old.) Some office buildings in Ohio were praised as not only big, but old: “Hidden in those giants are some truly venerable buildings that not only rank with the largest but have stood the test of time.”

Merriam-Webster’s definition makes clear that “venerable” has age at its heart: “calling forth respect through age, character, and attainments,” or, more broadly, “conveying an impression of aged goodness and benevolence.”

The Visual Thesaurus, which maps words and their meanings, shows “venerable” aligned between “august,” “revered,” and “old.”

In fact, in the 1949 edition of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition of “venerable” is “capable of being venerated; worthy of veneration; – generally implying an advanced age.” You have to be “old” to be venerable, it seems.

Or, perhaps, religious. In the Anglican Church, “the Venerable” is a title of respect for an archdeacon, the way “the Honorable” is used for American congressmen. In Roman Catholicism, the “venerable” are on the first step to sainthood, beneath “beatified” or “canonized.” Buddhist monks and novices are “venerable.” Of those, only the people on the way to sainthood are guaranteed to be old.

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The word “venerable” itself has its heart in religion, the Oxford English Dictionary says, with its first usage in English around 1437 in the context of people “Worthy of being venerated, revered, or highly respected and esteemed, on account of character or position.”

But around 1500, the term aged, the OED says, adding the meaning “Commanding veneration or respect by reason of age combined with high personal character and dignity of appearance; having an impressive appearance in virtue of years and personal qualities.”

Not just old, but old with character. But still mostly in a religious context.

Then lo, around the end of the 18th century, the OED says, “venerable” was used to mean “Ancient, antique, old.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage says the word venerable is “overblown when used merely for old.” But time is marching on, and Garner’s Language-Change Index lists “venerable” as a euphemism for “old” at Stage Four, meaning only old fuddy-duddies would object. One need only go to the “venerable” second edition of Garner’s, from 2003, to see that the euphemism has moved from “cliché” status. And no, “overblown” is not a synonym for “cliché.”

But back to the president. Is calling somebody “old” an insult? When you remember that an  insult is in the mind of the beholder, you need to consider the mind of the beholder.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.