Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
The Genres Tell You So
January and February are big birthday months among my family and friends, with multiple generations celebrating that they were born. Birthdays to some, though, mean regretting that they’re older—rather than rejoicing that they’re still alive—and make them “feel old.” That’s whether they’re turning 79 or 39, 63 or 33.
Of course, we are older when our birthday comes around—though we’d be older that day even if it weren’t our birthday. But I’ve been curious about what makes us “feel old” in a negative way, and when that starts to happen.
When I was a kiddo, being older each year was a great thing. New freedoms!
I could walk to the drugstore near downtown with my friends! (I could already play with friends or ride my bike in the neighborhood unsupervised—it was a different day.)
Then I got older and I could babysit! Then I got older and I could get my learner’s permit! Then I could get my driver’s license!
Then I could buy 3.2 beer (I lived in Colorado, where 18-year-olds could buy low-alcohol beer with their pizza, and I was one of the first of my friends to hit 18. Boy was I special for a few months!). Then I hit 21 and could buy alcohol anywhere, anytime (until I moved to a state with tight laws on where you could purchase alcohol. I still can’t buy a bottle of wine in grocery stores. Thank you, Kansas!)
After hitting 21 . . . I started getting older. And it wasn’t supposed to be such a great thing.
My 20’s were a bit of a neutral time—going to grad school, getting my first full-time job, taking the next step each time. But at the end of my 20’s, I started hearing that I was supposed to be sorry I was adding a year. I learned that 29 was the last year of my youth.
Women are supposed to want to stay 29 forever, which I never understood. I looked forward to turning 30! I was finally an adult—finished grad school, in my first full-time job, where I wanted to be. Life was good and going to get better in my 30's.
Who tells us when getting older is bad? How do we know?
Well, lots of genres help carry that message.
There are the famous quotes, like this one that has become a common saying:
Don’t trust anyone over thirty. -Jerry Rubin
Then there are the jokes, for another genre. Lots of jokes.
There are jokes starting for those who are turning 30. 30!
When you’re a teenager, all you want to do is buy beer. But once you hit 30 all you want to do is to get carded.
-Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City
Even Robert Frost got in on the act:
Time and Tide wait for no man, but time always stands still for a woman of thirty.
- Robert Frost
Well, maybe that one’s fake news.
The quotations, the jokes, they were telling me and everyone else that getting older was now a bad thing, especially for women.
Every decade had another set of getting old jokes.
Good Housekeeping published a whole excerpt from the book—yes, book!—published with the title You Know You’re 40 When.
Turning 50 is another milestone for jokes. Here’s a classic:
Prayer for turning 50:
God grant me the senility
to forget the people I never liked,
the good fortune to run into the people I do,
and the eyesight to tell the difference.
The best form of birth control for people over 50: nudity.
The jokes include both men and women:
You know you’re 50 when:
But women at 50 start getting special attention for the approach of menopause.
You know you’re 50 when
Once you hit 60, it’s all over. The jokes are just about how old you are and near death. What a laugh, huh?
There’s a whole web page (more than one) just for jokes about “You know you’re getting older when . . .”
Some of my faves:
You know you're getting older when
In a hostage situation you are likely to be released first.
People call at 9 p.m. and ask, "Did I wake you?"
The clothes you've put away until they come back in style... come back in style.
You begin every other sentence with, "Nowadays..."
When you're told to act your own age, and you die.
Most of those jokes are for people being really old. You don’t get a joke about acting your age and dying unless you’re really old.
I think I see another genre within the joke genre: The “You know you’re [age] when” genre: You know you’re turning 50 when; you know you’re middle-aged when; you know you’re over the hill when; you know you’re getting older when . . .
Of course, all those jokes end up in another genre—birthday cards. But now to go along with those hysterical jokes we have funny illustrations of old, saggy, wrinkly women and fat, bald men.
I was going to show some “funny” getting older birthday cards, but, surprisingly (NOT—oops, I just showed my age using that old slang), not a lot of people post open-access photos of the birthday cards they got making fun of their getting older. Hallmark cards has a whole series with their cartoon character Maxine, saggy and craggy and full of witticisms about old bodies.
50 is an especially mean—I mean, funny—birthday. Hallmark has 10 cards available for sale on their website with jokes about turning 50, with only 8 for turning 40 and 30, and even fewer, 6, for turning 60 or 70.
The biggest birthday for birthday cards on Hallmark’s site is your 1st birthday, with 21 cards. None of those cards, though, make jokes about getting older. They could, though. Just imagine the “you know you’re [age] when” jokes we could make about turning 1 year old.
You know you’re 1 year old when:
The sayings, jokes, birthday cards, gag gifts, and more all tell us in our US culture that the 20’s are our peak. It’s all downhill from there. And boy, 50 is some kind of turning point. You’re old enough to get really mean jokes in your cards and black birthday balloons as gag gifts, but you’re not so old that you really are seriously wrinkly and saggy and close to death and it would probably be less funny to make fun of those facts.
In fact, the jokes and cards for people 70 and over have a different feel for me. More like you’re in on the joke, instead of being the butt of the joke. You know you’re old when your lucky day is finding your car in the Walmart parking lot. Ha ha, so true! Your idea of a good time is a recliner and reruns of Murder She Wrote and Columbo on the same night. Yep, it’s true! Ha ha
Maybe there’s another turn as we get even older. We look forward to each birthday as we’re growing up, and then we look forward to each birthday as we’re getting old. We’re still here! If we’re lucky in genes and health and money, we might be enjoying life. There also are a lot of sayings about life beginning at 40 and “you’re not getting older, you’re getting better” and “with age comes wisdom.” There’s even a great saying that goes with women turning 50—the “f**k-‘em 50’s.” So there are some counter-messages to the birthday gags, jokes, cards, sayings. There’s another side to turning older.
In some future post, I want to explore more seriously the whole notion of what we consider “old” and how that changes—both in our culture and as we age. You might know you’re getting old when you check the obituaries every day to see if you’re in them (ha ha, that’s a classic one). But turning 80 can mean you’re having the most fun of your life or you’re having the most pain of your life. So the word “old” and its meanings deserves its own post.
Ah, with world enough and time. Who knows? I have a birthday coming up. If I make it to the day, I’m planning to approach it like all my others, with enthusiasm and joy and expecting on this one day to be treated as very special.
If you’re very fortunate, you know it’s your birthday when you expect birthday cards and the happy birthday song and calls and messages from friends and family and good wishes and gifts and maybe even a joke or two. And maybe even time to watch a favorite TV show, whether Murder She Wrote or Game of Thrones.
To each of you, whenever your birthday may be and whether you’re turning 20 or 100, whether you’re struggling to find a job that day or struggling to get out of bed, please do your best to enjoy your birthday!
If not enough people around you celebrate you, let me know your email address and I’ll send you a birthday card, no mean getting older jokes included. I’ll notice, and I’ll celebrate you.
Cuz getting older may not be for sissies, to paraphrase Bette Davis or H.L. Mencken [edited after correction, see comment below], but it’s definitely for celebrating
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