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VOL. 39 | NO. 46 | Friday, November 13, 2015

Old bag: Age-related invective or sexist slander?

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This just in from crossword land: I’ve deleted OLD BAG from my word list. Along with COOT, CODGER, and GEEZER. Still thinking about CURMUDGEON.

Confused? Okay, here’s the story.

In a recent crossword, the phrase OLD BAG appeared in the fill. Based largely on the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry stole a loaf of marble rye bread from a woman (my most recent point of reference), I neither batted an eye nor thought twice about the term.

The clue was “Hag.” Will Shortz came up with that. It’s a synonym of old bag, I suppose. I submit, though, that even it wouldn’t have made a difference if the clue had been “Unattractive elderly woman” or “Yore purse?” The first of those clues employs a dictionary definition of bag, with a synonym of old; the second is a pun I made up.

I’d like for the second one to have been used, as it’s not derogatory by any stretch. But, in my opinion, the first is fair, dictionary-based, non-discriminatory and accurate, as well as educational, maybe.

Well, the crossword blogosphere just got all over this. It started when one webmaster labeled OLD BAG as “unsavory,” which it is.

And then someone commented: “It would be nice if sexist terms like OLD BAG didn’t appear in the crossword. (Any comment complaining that I don’t criticize male-targeted words like ‘geezer’ will be summarily deleted. That isn’t sexism unless men are oppressed by society.)”

And then ...

“Old coot and old bag are not equally sexist. But they are … equally unsavory.”

“Looking forward to hearing from you the next time OLD COOT appears in a puzzle! It’s been 25 years since its last NYT usage, so it’s pretty much due for an appearance.”

“FOGY, COOT, GEEZER and MOSSBACK have all appeared within the past few years. ‘Old codger,’ for instance, is a favorite clue for GEEZER.

“These entries are no rarer than the sexist ones. I just don’t agree that being nasty to non-oppressed classes is any less nasty.

“I’d like to see all such entries used very sparingly. I’m NOT trying to neutralize any complaint about misogyny” [sic].

“I think one tactic is to really concentrate on cases that unmistakably cross the line. And the current example does exactly that.”

“Also, … ‘I just don’t agree that being nasty to non-oppressed classes is any less nasty’ is so much typical white man nonsense I can’t Even.

“Here, let me try to explain: old white men own everything and have never been systematically oppressed or imprisoned or degraded in this country ever.

“So even if GEEZER were a slur, it is different in its effect, than OLD BAG, ILLEGAL, etc. GEEZER hurts no one; the others support a real, tangible, current power imbalance of one kind or another.

“As an aging white man myself, I do Not understand how people like me (and much much older) can’t grasp this” [sic].

“For what it’s worth, I had OLD GEEZERS in one of my themeless puzzles earlier this year, and I got exactly zero complaints about it.”

And that was just from one blog.

By the way, Jerry really needed that marble rye!

If the woman had just sold him the marble rye, he’d have never called her an old bag.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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