Even native speakers of English found themselves scrambling for dictionaries to get the definition of “dotard,” which was what North Korea’s Kim Jong-un used to insult US President Donald Trump, not once, but twice, in a speech:
“Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say,” and “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”
The broader context of the insult is a word war that has been ongoing between Trump and Kim over North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and threats to attack the United States (Guam, actually, which is within closer range).
This dotard word does sound incredibly like a Filipino-English word. Dotard though is much, much older. Various etymological dictionaries — those that give origins of words — date it back to the 14th century originally used to refer to an imbecile but, in more recent times, has come to mean a person whose old age has led to what is perceived as foolish behavior. Another term, dotage, refers to old age and senility.
Kim’s dotard missile could not have been more timely for me because I was preparing a lecture to be delivered at the Osaka University, a linguistic analysis of the terms used to refer to the elderly in English, Filipino and Chinese, with a focus on the ambivalence of attitudes we have toward the elderly.
On one hand, we like to boast about our reverence and respect for the elderly, both the Chinese and Filipinos often pointing out that we don’t put our elderly in nursing homes like “Westerners” do, usually accompanied by horror stories about what happens in those homes.
That respect does not mean better care though. The fact is that culturally, we are still unprepared for the growing numbers of elderly among us, including some of your favorite columnists. We may not send our elderly to nursing homes but we sequester them at home, in their rooms.
Our words reveal what we think of the elderly and generally, it’s still kindness, maybe tolerance. “Ulyanin!”, we’ll sigh in exasperation with memory lapses, but we apply that term to the young as well. I use it all the time with my children, more as a way of reminding them they’ve become too privileged and, therefore, careless with their possessions.
We do have one terrible term though for the elderly: “amoy-lupa,” smelling like earth or soil, which is meant to suggest that someone is near death. I would take this opportunity to point out that often, the amoy-lupa is what happens when the elderly’s personal hygiene is neglected by family members and caregivers.
In contrast, there are many words in Chinese that poke fun or insult them, usually for senility. Minnan (also sometimes referred to as Hokkien), the language spoken by local ethnic Chinese, has many such derogatory terms. “Lao gong” — old and stupid — tops them all. Another term “lao te mia” means “old short life,” sometimes used by women to refer to their old husbands, almost as a wish. Even worse, also used by the women, is “lao kua cha” or “old coffin.”
Intrigued by dotard, I looked up the term in Chinese dictionaries and, lo and behold, it produced “lao hu tu” or “old clumsy,” as well as “lao mao,” which means “doddering, senile, dim-sighted.” Ironically, “mao” alone or repeated as “mao mao” can be used as a word for reverence, usually people in their 80s or older. The word “mao” here is not the “mao” of Mao Zedong, but a character that has “lao” or old on top, and “mao” or hair on the bottom, so imagine an old man with a long beard.
My multilingual word search did bring me to something even more intriguing: In China and in the Philippines, the elderly’s many experiences in life can actually be seen as dangerous. Chinese has all kinds of terms to refer to this “danger” like calling the elderly, for example, old foxes. Generally, the idea is that the elderly will outsmart the young.
We have an equivalent in Filipino, ironically the word “gulang,” meaning the elderly and which produces “magulang” or parent. It is also the root word for “gulangin,” for someone to take advantage of the naivete of someone younger.
It is in this context that even “matanda”, usually a reverential term, can be said with contempt. Once in a doctor’s waiting room, a television newscast came up with Juan Ponce Enrile’s alleged involvement in an anomaly. I was startled when the receptionist raised her voice, in contempt and exasperation: “Naku, ang matanda na yan.” Oh, that old creature, and soon, other people in the room had jumped into the conversation, with a consensus that he was crafty and would get away unscathed.
What we’ll see then in the years to come, as the elderly population grows, is more of ambivalence between respect and resentment.
We want to respect the elderly, but sometimes tire of, not so much their senility than their stubbornness, and sometimes the way they try to manipulate younger people. Sadly, there are also those who live on scamming the elderly with pyramid schemes, budol-budol, dugo-dugo, or, simply, selling over-priced products from supplements to massage chairs.
Yet when you think about it, it’s not always about age alone. Kim is 33 and Trump is 71, so Kim may seem like a young upstart who is being rude to an older person but you can take away the age aspect, sit back and derive some entertainment from the two dotards.
Ay, but too many nations are ruled by too many dotards these days.
Meantime, we senior citizens should find ways to become kinder and nurturing. Whether in our homes or offices, we should grow old by becoming more nurturing rather than authoritarian, be more generous with our resources, whether time or money. We should listen more, be less defensive when young people have a different view from our own.
Dotards we will not become.
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