oldest/eldest

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Mangxin2009

Member
Chinese
As the ______ of the childrenJohn often helps his younger sisters with their lessons

A. oldest
B. eldest

I think both choices will work, won't they?


Thank you.
 
  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    We have two discussions about this in the forum. I had expected rather more.

    In the other, older, thread Panj. says that elder and eldest were the terms used 'to refer directly to seniority within a family' but he adds that 'even in that context, the use of eldest is limited'. He goes on to suggest that he was thinking of a domestic context.

    I'm writing an essay which concerns, at one point, Kings of Judah who have sacrificed their eldest sons - the dearer to them and to their interests, the more important the sacrifice and hence the more likely to propitiate the god.

    I wouldn't want to say their oldest sons, because I want to stress that these boys were their father's heirs, and eldest son seems the clear way of doing that.

    Of course the eldest son is also the oldest son, discounting non-legitimised bastards. If Panj is right and the expression isn't used much now, what do I say? I want to avoid the cliché, son and heir.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Hullo Mr.T. If you're writing an essay which 'references' (as young folk have it these days) the Kings of Judah, I don't think you should worry about using the term eldest. I certainly would:)

    I may be a lone voice bleating in the 19th-century wilderness (as usual), but I think rumours of the demise of elder/eldest are much exaggerated.
     
    Last edited:

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I may be a lone voice bleating in the 19th-century wilderness (as usual), but I think rumours of the demise of elder/eldest are much exaggerated.
    I think you might be!
    In expressions like "respect your elders" you will still here it by all but even for family members it's on its way out (in my opinion).
    It's one of those good examples of language change where regularisation is still in process and hasn't finished. In the future people will know that older English (1900-2100) (weird to think about, eh?) had 'eldest' but then 'oldest' took over. We look back at so many other changes in the past and always assume changes to be a "thing of the past", but this is a good example of one switch going on now and still working its way through the language.

    Again, my opinions only, of course..
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Thank you all.

    So you'd say his oldest son, would you, Alx? To indicate his heir?

    Remember that who was heir to the king was a matter of supreme importance.

    I thought that speaking of the Kings of Judah I might be granted a bit of licence. I get precious little of it, even at Christmas.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    So you'd say his oldest son, would you, Alx? To indicate his heir?
    Yes.

    I thought that speaking of the Kings of Judah I might be granted a bit of licence. I get precious little of it, even at Christmas.
    To be honest I hadn't taken the context into account, I was replying as if it were the case of talking about anyone's son (or heir).
    I actually didn't realise this was a resurrected discussion and paid more attention to the very first post and not to yours which I now see is the one with the new post.
    Apologies for that.

    Now, re-reading your post in full, and seeing the required nuances of 'heir', I still would say 'oldest' and I'm not getting the link that 'eldest' means anything more than an heir.
    Maybe something like using the 'next in line' might work for you? I actually do wish elder/eldest was more common, I like the idea of retaining our Germanic comparative vowel shifts but it's just not really that prevalent in the language I've been brought up to speak.
     

    boozer

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    TT, I personally like "eldest". It is the right word, to me. Somehow, although this is probably absurd, I cannot shake off the nagging feeling that "oldest" says, implicitly and ever so subtly, that they were all old. I know this does not necessarily have to be the case, but... Then, "son and heir" does not necessarily tell me you are talking about the oldest of them.

    Of course, I appreciate the fact that "oldest" is the more popular word.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    If you saw a family together and they meet a friend they haven't seen for 10 years, and the kids are, let's say 6 and 7, if the friend said "Ah, so these are your kids? Which one is the oldest?" That wouldn't strike you as odd, would it? Oldest of a group only has the ceiling of the highest age of the oldest member.

    (Let's not get into the 'if there are only two it should be older/elder' nonsense, before anyone brings that up:p)
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Yes, I know. But it's a bit like the old chestnut about whether a glass is half full or half empty; I can see Boozer's point.

    I felt it was better to tack my request onto an existing thread, rather than start a new one. In the OP I'd certainly say oldest.

    From the point of view of style and rhythms of the sentences, not to mention my editor's concerns about length, which she calculates in words rather than syllables, I suspect, two syllables at the most would suit me best. I don't want more than a single word. I'm interested that, even in such a context, elder and eldest strike you as antique.

    The BNC is full of examples of historical writing using the words. Here's an example:

    By Gascon custom, observed in 1254 by Henry III and in 1306 by Edward I, this could only be the king-duke's eldest son. The Angevin legacy and the 100 year war. M.Vale, Cambridge: Blackwells, 1990.

    The ngrams suggest that eldest is losing ground heavily to oldest. I chose the superlative because elder has life as a noun.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Well the BNS having examples in historical writings can also reflect antique uses.
    With 'elder', I naturally assume someone who is old ("let's consult the elders", etc).

    Either way I just threw my opinion into the ring, I don't think there's any problem with using eldest. I find lots of things weird that other people don't, and lots of things as fine that other people fine weird. Go with what you think sounds right. You can't really go wrong with that.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    ... Kings of Judah who have sacrificed their eldest sons - the dearer to them and to their interests, the more important the sacrifice and hence the more likely to propitiate the god.

    I wouldn't want to say their oldest sons, because I want to stress that these boys were their father's heirs, and eldest son seems the clear way of doing that...
    I can think of no better way of showing the distinction between oldest and eldest.

    If there were five kings and each had seven sons, then "Kings of Judah sacrificed their oldest sons", could mean that
    (i) the ages of all the sons of all the kings were assessed and those who were oldest amongst them were sacrificed
    (ii) the oldest sons refers to those sons of each king who are above the median age of the sons of each family.
    (Small points, but upon such things turn the fate of nations. :D)

    Whereas eldest = the most senior in age from amongst one family or, better put, the heir apparent.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    There's also the point that if you set the ngram for BE usage, the difference is much less pronounced.
    I wasn't aware of that function on Google, but it looks like an interesting way to look at diachronic comparisons.
    Either way it shows perfectly well that other people older than me would have (probably) grown up in a world where "eldest" was more common than "oldest" and therefore see it as more correct, but from the 1980s it evens out and then from the late 1980s (when I was born) the more common (literary) form was "oldest".

    Of course I say this with all the usual caveats that need to be taken into account when looking at publishing data, as often it's a far cry from language in its spoken form. As is well known writing traditions usually lag behind standard traditional spoken ones as they become normal for more and more people so the take over of "oldest" from "eldest" in a situation like this would indicate the spoken language had the form much earlier than this, but maybe after the range when some people here had their linguistic input to "learn" English so-to-speak.

    Going from later on and carrying into around 2005 it shows a wider and wider separation of the two forms.
    A really good tool!
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    the n-gram viewer is fascinating but the frequency of use is often a function of demand - e.g. the examples of Telegram in 2009 is the same as it was in 1870 but only ~1/7th of what it was in 1950.

    Also, comparing you and thou gives the interesting result that both are on a parallel decline. Add it, he, they and I to this and you see an even more marked decline and wonder what the subject of most sentences might be in a few years time.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Just to take the you/thou point.

    It's true that thou is in decline, but that is what one would expect. You in BE has risen and fallen over time; recently it's 0.185% against 0.205% in 1800. That's about a 10% fall, and that could be caused by several factors, other than a general tendency for people to use the second person less. I don't think it's very significant, and it doesn't suggest a nonsense to me.

    If you look at the figures for AE, a different picture emerges.

    I think we mustn't forget that people who use both forms, older/oldest and elder/eldest, like one or two of the posters here including me, do so in different contexts. The occasion of those contexts may have altered in Google books over time (more or less historical writing, for instance) and that would affect the figures.
     

    PaulQ

    Senior Member
    UK
    English - England
    I am not saying that there is any suggestion of nonsense, but that in some cases there might be additional reasons for the currency of the word against time other than the word being replaced by a synonym.
     
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