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Semantics for romantics

A recent letter to the editor objected with some asperity, I thought, to calling us old geezers old geezers, and thus the refinements of improved semantics career along in hot pursuit of something or other. A friend of mine just lately organized his Friendly Society of Esteemed Old Geezers, to counteract the lah-de-dah of ''Senior Citizens,'' and I hastened to join. Members, among other things, are asked to cite (as if reporting UFOs) instances where city engineers raise the level of curbstones without placing announcements in the papers. As a true and undaunted Old Geezer firmly opposed to the Senior Citizen syndrome, I don't trip over too many curbstones out here in the ruralities, but I can say that at times I go to the workbench to get a tool and can't remember which one. I am in no way offended at Old Geezer, and smile at the compliment when the boys call me the Ancient Mariner, and sometimes ''the old duffer.'' I am also on record as detesting custodian for janitor, security guard for cop, and communications consultant for tub-thumper.

The writer of said letter shows clearly that he/she (it's a people-person) doesn't know that geezer is a friendly word. The crabby, crotchety, hard-to-get-along-with, nose-out-of-joint, stick-on-his-shoulder buzzard down the road is never called a geezer. An old crab, maybe, or a character, but never a geezer. Geezers are nice people. A citizen, on the other hand, may be nice and he may not be nice, but he is just a run-of-the-mill individual, not separated wheat from chaff, and comparable in the aggregate to taxpayers, denizens, residents, boxholders, customers, and even the ''patrons'' who mail letters at the post office. A senior citizen can never be more than the opposite of a ''young squirt,'' showing promise but not yet dry behind the ears.

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Our language, at least the lingo, has many words like geezer which are better than senior citizen. How about cuss? I grew up with a vernacular in which cuss is rated high as a pleasant variation of geezer. First, a cuss has to be elderly - an ''old cuss.'' There is no such thing as a young cuss. That's a whippersnapper. But, ''Who's the old cuss with the goatee?'' And cuss, like geezer, is always used positively: ''He's a fine old cuss of the first water; word's good as gold.'' Or ''Take that Harry, now - he's a comical old cuss!''

Another word that might replace geezer is ''thing.'' But thing, at times, can be bisexual: ''She's a persnickety old thing.'' Or, ''He's a dear old thing - I take him cookies every week.'' A substitute for thing might be rig, and rig, too , can be M. or F. ''She's a rig, that one is!'' Or, ''You talk about a rig! He's it!'' Except that rigs aren't always old: ''He was a comical rig away back in school.''

Here in Maine, we use many negative words positively - such as ''reprobate.'' If we had a reprobate in Maine, and we called him a reprobate, he wouldn't like it. But some sweet, kindly, lovable old settler with hearty good cheer and ever a pleasant word is a reprobate. ''Why Hank, you old reprobate you, foreclosed on any widows lately?'' Hank is pleased. Sets him apart like an honorary degree. Some other words used left-handed like reprobate are skinflint, backslider, rascal, hossthief, Democrat, shyster, rapscallion, hairpin (for crooked!), poacher, and goat. ''Hey! You old goat - where you been all winter?'' Any of which, naturally, is to be preferred to ''senior citizen.''

Stet Plummer used to say, ''If I get something shoved down my throat (i.e., ''throurt''), even if it's good I don't like it.'' Seems to me ''senior citizen'' has been shoved down the throats of old folks whether they like it or not. Time was that ''the old folks'' had their place with all the comfy goodwill that they deserved, rocking chairs and soft slippies and grandchildren on the lap for Red Riding Hood. Warm and cozy. Twilight and evensong and leisure and repose. The senior citizen, who has replaced all that, is on ''benefits,'' and you see him at the bank on the third of each month. He gets rebates on hotel rooms and travel buses and discounts at the chain stores. He may be better off, and who's to say? But he lacks the chummy qualities of the true and reliable old geezer, the cuss, the joker, the rig, and all good people everywhere who try to be themselves.

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