Friday, 15 August 2014

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates. With a True Tale by way of illustration.


See-ness-uhnss: Noun: the process of becoming old and showing the signs of aging.

From the Latin, senescere, to grow old, originally from senex, old man.

Related forms: senesce, verb, to grow old; senescent, adjective, in the state of growing old.

An excellent word for something common to everything and to all of us, which we all indulge in pretty much the whole of our lives, though it is possible to use the negative version, unsenescent, even if you might be hard pressed to slip that into conversation other than in an ironic way. The opposite would be juvenescence: being, or having the power, to grow young or youthful. From the same senex root, we also get senile, senior, senate, senator and the rather less utile seneschal (that's one in the Santa headgear), this being a senior ranking officer having charge of the domestic arrangements in the household of a medieval dignitary (though there are still some on the go today). The terms senor, senora and senorita are also derived from the same root. Thus, in the right circumstances (you’d probably need to be in Spain, or talking to a Spaniard at least), it would be possible to say that, “the unsenescent seneschal took a senior position in the senate, as a senator, until he became senile, senor.” Wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the chance to use it, mind.

Having claimed bare seconds ago that senescence is the inescapable lot of all things, it turns out that this is not the absolute fate of every organism after all, there being scientific evidence enough to suggest that cellular senescence developed in certain species to prevent the onset of cancer, which would seem to be, in evolutionary terms, a strange choice: getting old and dying before the tumescence has a chance to get at you. Mind you, it is only a few simple species that have not taken this route, such as the Hydra, for example, and all of which have no "post-mitotic" cells, mitosis being the technical term for the cell division that does the damage. The planarian flatworm is said to be biologically immortal, having “apparently limitless regenerative capacity fuelled by a population of highly proliferative adult stem cells.” The main drawbacks to this strategy are that (1) you live for ages but only as a flatworm and, more significantly (2) you’re only biologically immortal: you still die.

Senescence, if indirectly, is easily the leading cause of death (unless you count cerebral hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain – which it would be technically accurate to say is the immediate cause of all human death) and, of the approximately 150,000 people who die each day all over the world, two thirds die of age-related causes, the figure rising to some ninety percent in industrialised nations. Which, by extension, means that the other 50,000 – a goodish attendance at a football match – die before their time is up every single day.

The oldest person to have ever lived (that can be verified) was Jeanne Calment, a French woman born on 21 February 1875 and who died on 4 August 1997 when she was 122 years and 164 days old. Of the top ten oldest people ever, no less than nine have been women, with just the one bloke managing to scrape in at number 10, a Japanese gentleman by the name of Jiroemon Kimura, who died in 2013 aged 116 years and 54 days. As for the oldest people still alive now, the top slot for that is also held by the Japanese, with another compatriot at number 9; an impressive tally of six are from the USA and the numbers are made up by one each from Italy and the UK, ours being Ethel Lang (née Lancaster), who was born in Barnsley (Yorkshire) way back in the reign of Queen Victoria.

When it comes to life expectancy, Monaco is the place to be, with an average of 87.2 (89 for women and 85.3 for men), even if it is the second smallest and the most densely populated country in the world, though only 37,579 people actually live there, most of them doing nothing more dangerous than banking, gambling or tax avoidance. Japan, once again, comes next, with the UK only managing a dismal twenty ninth place (average 81) and the USA, despite their current plethora of supercentenarians, languishing all the way down at thirty fifth (79.8). Greenland’s figures are spoiled by having the highest suicide rate but, even so, they still manage to tie with Denmark in one hundred and forty fourth (70.07). As for senescence, Japan has easily the biggest percentage of population aged over sixty five (in nations of over 40 million, at any rate), weighing in with 24.9%, just a smidge short of a quarter, though they also have the equal smallest when it comes to children under fourteen with a meagre 13.1%, in a draw with the Germans for it (who will no doubt win the penalty shoot-out). Can it be coincidence that these are also two of the most successful economies in the world right now?

This time’s True Tale features senescence in the frail form of Barbie - an occasional visitor back in the bygone days of the Wishing Well - a sweet old lady who would drift in now and then from the care home across the way. How she managed to escape from under constant supervision there never was fully established but she did and, for half an hour or so, she would entertain the somewhat malicious humours of the regulars at the Well with her antics and eccentricities before being escorted back to the home. Harmless enough and often quite lucid, the grip of dementia still made her prone to unshakeable delusions at times, maintaining absolutely that the war was still on and remaining convinced that the bombers would be rolling overhead at any moment. Mind you, given the amount of fighting that sometimes went on in there, that was an easy mistake to make.

‘I see all the mobile phones’ve come out,’ the barmaid remarked to us in aside this one particular night.

Looking round, indeed they had, with every one of the few who were in either talking into one in an overexcited gibber or else wielding it in a manner threatening photography, though there seemed to be no discernible reason for this sudden frenzy of activity whatsoever.

‘Damon Albarn, innit?’ our informant helpfully supplied in a stage whisper.

And there he was, the legendary Blur frontman himself and, in a kind of buy-one-get-one-free type deal, sitting alongside him was no less a figure than Graham Coxon, former guitarist with the aforementioned band, the pair of them with nothing more on their minds than discussing the possibility of Coxon’s rejoining the supergroup (following bitter dispute) over as quiet a pint as could be hoped for in a starstruck backstreet watering hole. Just such a reunion did, in fact, eventually take place and, in all probability, it’s mainly thanks to the intervention of Barbie.

Some while later, as soon as the two lads made ready to go, Barbie was instantly up on her pins. She could sense that something out of the ordinary was occurring, even if she had not the faintest idea what, and she was now determined to get to the bottom of it. Waylaying the hapless singer, her eyes narrowed like a snake’s as it fixes onto its next victim whilst she scrutinised him from top to bottom and back again before demanding of him, as if he had already denied it:

‘I know you, young man, don’t I?’

Albarn appeared to be struck entirely speechless by this unexpected assault, unsure as to how to respond to it, though Coxon, from the relative safety of behind, seemed to be richly relishing his friend’s exquisite dilemma. Here was the frontman of a world supergroup, who has performed in front of audiences of thousands, now being terrorised by a little old lady.

‘I don’t think you do,’ he said at last, timidly.

‘I do!’ Barbie insisted vehemently. ‘I do know you, young man. I’ve seen you.’

‘I don’t think you can have,’ came the tactful reply.

‘Yes!’ said Barbie, wholly undeterred and still convinced of her own veracity. ‘Yes, I know you all right. I do. I know you.’

A mere shake of the head this time by way of rebuttal, while Barbie assayed him afresh with piercing eyes, still as if she meant to make a meal of him the very moment she recalled who he was. And then a light suddenly flashed into them, a glow of unadulterated triumph, and a smile of satisfaction spread across her face.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I knew it! I do know you. Don’t you work in Argos?’

Photo Credits:

The Planarian Flatworm:
"Polycelis felina" by Eduard Solà - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

"Blur Newcastle 2009 Coxon Albarn" by Lola's Big Adventure! - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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