Elder - eldest

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The adjectiveselder’ and ‘eldest’ have the same etymological root as ‘older’ and ‘oldest’ – all come from the Old English eald, old – but the two pairs of adjectives cannot be used interchangeably.

Elder’ and ‘eldest’ may be used only of human beings who are members of the same family. The comparativeelder’ means ‘born earlier’ (than some other member(s) of the family) and the superlativeeldest’ means ‘born earlier’ (than all the family members in the relevant class of comparison). The words are used in two different ways:

  • in reference to family members of the same generation, for example, ‘I have an elder brother’, ‘Edward VII was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’, ‘Mary was the elder (of the two sisters)’, or ‘William was the eldest (of all the siblings)’. Note that ‘elder’ and ‘eldest’ cannot be used predicatively: we cannot say ‘John was elder than William' or ‘Edward was eldest' – we have to say ‘John was older than William’ or ‘Edward was oldest’.
  • in reference to family members of different generations, ‘elder’ is sometimes added to a name, often in an historical context, to distinguish identically named members of the same family. For example, Cato the Elder (i.e., Cato the Censor, 234-149 BCE) is distinguished in this way from his great grandson Cato the Younger (i.e., Cato of Utica, 95-46 BCE), William Pitt the Elder (i.e., Earl of Chatham, 1708-1788, English statesman and orator) from his son William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806, English statesman who became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1783 at the age of 24), and Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE, the Roman naturalist who died in the eruption of Vesuvius) from his nephew Pliny the Younger (62-113 CE, Roman author). The adjectivesSenior’ and ‘Junior’ (often abbreviated to ‘Sr’ and ‘Jr’) are used in a similar way, especially in the United States. Thus John F. Kennedy Junior (1960-1999) is so called to distinguish him from his more famous father, John F. Kennedy Senior, the American president who was assassinated in November 1963).

Elder’ is also used as a noun. The elders of a group are its older members, those who have authority or influence within the group – as when anthropologists speak of the elders of a village or tribe. In some Protestant churches the elders are certain senior members of the congregation with specific administrative or pastoral responsibilities within the church. The Greek equivalent, πρεσβὐτερος ('presbuteros'), gives us the words Presbyterian (a church governed by its Elders, senior members of the congregation) and presbyopia, the deterioration in sight observed with age - a decrease in the ability to see nearby things, characteristically necessitating reading glasses.

There is also a homonym elder (noun), the name of a common tree, Sambucus nigra, sometimes adjectivally elder tree, or elderberry after its clusters of small dark berries valued for making a potent native wine. The white flowers, which also appear as clusters not unlike umbels, are also used in the kitchen. for making syrups, cordials and 'elderflower champagne', a sparkling but not necessarily alcoholic beverage. Both flowers and berries are used in herbal medicines.