Language Corner

Is ‘superannuated’ superfluous?

July 30, 2019

A recent travel article in The New York Times extolled the virtues of touring the French countryside in a 1976 Citroën, which the writer called a “superannuated automobile.” An editorial headlined “Democrats have to decide what to do with the two old men” in The Washington Post said that, “with age,” the differences between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden “have softened into superannuated similarity.” And a workshop called “Love and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave,” advertised in a local newspaper, promised to ask “Is love superannuated enough to be discarded from our social discourse?”

The context should give you enough to recognize that “superannuated” has something to do with age. But some people might be thrown off by that “super” prefix. Is “superannuated” a good age or a bad age? Let’s break it down.

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“Super” often means “great” or “large”; among the definitions of the “super” prefix in Merriam-Webster are “over and above,” “extra,” “surpassing all or most others of its kind,” and “superior in status, title, or position.” At face value, these are all positive.

“Annuated” has no stand-alone definition, though the Oxford English Dictionary notes an obsolete usage (“to nod, to give directions by signs”). So we must return to its Latin roots to discover what it means. The OED says its etymology includes references to “animals more than a year old”; in the legal context of “having outrun a year’s time limit”; and related to the Latin “annuus.” Once you see “annuus,” you can see how time comes in: It’s the same root found in “annual,” “annuity,” and “anniversary.” Those definitions are simply descriptive, neither negative nor positive.

In the 17th century, though, “superannuated” meant “Disqualified or incapacitated by age; old and infirm,” or “too old; worn out, antiquated; made out of date or obsolete, esp. by age or new developments,” the OED says. Definitely not positive.

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The OED says “superannuated” today is usually used in a “depreciative or humorous” way. The Citroën is an old friend that sometimes balks on steep mountain roads, but is mostly viewed fondly. It’s unclear whether love’s possible “superannuation” is thought of negatively or positive. But the other use we cite here, and most of those found in American publications in recent months, use the word mostly in a negative sense, not a positive one. “Superannuated” things are old, old-fashioned, broken down, past their prime, useless.

Leave it to the British to add a bright side to “superannuated.” The verb “superannuate” means “Retire (someone) with a pension.” So you’re not just pushed aside because you’re old and useless; you get money, too, but only if you’ve contributed to a “superannuation” fund, known in these parts as a “pension.”

The big problem with “superannuated,” though, is not with its connotations. “Superannuated” is what Strunk and White call a “twenty-dollar word,” one that should be shunned when a cheaper version is at hand. Outside of the British Empire, the word “superannuated” occurs as rarely in conversation as a good pension appears in a modern workplace. If the intent is to say that the differences between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have become useless, say that. If love is old-fashioned, say that.

As for the Citroën, romantic and literary license could allow “superannuated,” especially because the car was the star of that article. But keeping the usage to once in an “annus” or so would be super.

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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.