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By Jim Rhodes
Words carry meanings on many levels.
Take the word old, for instance. Of course we all know what old means. Old means old – the opposite of young or new.
True enough, but wait.
What about old man, commonly used to describe one’s father (“My old man taught me how to tie a bowline”), husband (“My old man stumbled home drunk again last night”) or a military officer (“The old man runs a tight ship”)? In all of these cases, old has nothing to do with age.
In England, old boy refers to a male person who is an alumnus of one of the exclusive schools. Old boys wear the school tie, affect the same mannerisms and share a common jargon (“Cheers, old boy, drink up”).
Of course, old boy is not to be confused with good old boy, which means just the opposite – usually a Caucasian male resident in the southern United States, the backside of whose neck is sunburnt and whose language is also unique. (“Y’all think old Charlie gonna get elected mayor?” “Yup, he’s got all the good old boys in his hip pocket.”)
So why did a perfectly good English word morph into something with a totally different meaning? And when did it happen? I’ve studied all sorts of dictionaries looking for an answer to the first question with no success. As to the second question, references go back at least several hundred years.
In my youth, I smoked Old Gold filter cigarettes. The brand was introduced in the 1920s by Lorillard Tobacco Company. I still remember the television commercials featuring tap-dancing Old Gold cigarette packs.
Old has often been used in nicknames for military or political leaders, connoting respect, sometimes awe, usually referring to some feature or quality of the person’s character, deeds or appearance. This usage had its greatest flowering in America during the early 1800s.
For example …
The American Civil War produced a plethora of colorful nicknames, among them:
And my personal favorite:
Curiously, my research has so far not turned up a single reference of this meaning for old applied to a woman (with the possible exception of the generic slang term old lady for one’s wife).
Whew. This brainwork tires me in my old age. I think it’s time to head home for a medicinal draught from a bottle bearing the label Old Crow, currently in residence on the lower shelf of my liquor cabinet.