Let me ask you a question. If someone called you “quirky”, would you regard it as a compliment? What about “eccentric”, “idiosyncratic” or “odd”? I know what I’d be thinking: quirky good, eccentric and the rest, not so much.
I have a point to make here, and it is this: there’s a whole group of words all basically suggesting the unconventional. Yet some people are applauded for being different while others are dismissed as distinctly strange.
The online Urban Dictionary (compiled by readers) explains “quirky” as “strange but cool”, even going so far as “completely awesome”. “Eccentric”, on the other hand, is a “euphemism for strange or weird”. I’m not a linguist, but these entries in the Urban Dictionary show I’m not alone.
Which brings me to my next point. Is it just me or do we tend to think of the young as quirky and the more mature as eccentric? The eccentrics I have known are/were all over 50 and rising. The quirky ones in my circle, on the other hand, are considerably younger.
Take my grandmother, for instance. The older she got the later she went to bed, until eventually she slept from dawn to noon. It was quite a challenge to integrate her hours into ours, believe me. She’d be having breakfast when we were into lunchtime. And when we headed for bed she’d just be building up to her peak.
In a young person this would be seen as quirky, a sign of a rich inner life and questing spirit. My gran, on the other hand, was regarded as out of kilter with the world, not quite fitting into society anymore. Accepted but with a sad shake of the head.
The aliens are coming
Then there was her belief in aliens who were lining up to attack our planet. Gran was a member of a London-based society which claimed to be saving us all from alien invasion. Members were instructed to chant mysterious incantations whenever the threat reached critical levels. As no invasion ever took place, mission was accomplished. Not that Gran ever received any thanks for saving us all from annihilation.
In a young person this kind of thing would be a sign of fertile imagination and could even lead to a highly rewarding career in online gaming.
And what about my neighbour, who recently died aged 74 (RIP Louise)? She trundled around town on a tricycle/wheelbarrow (two dogs perched in the wheelbarrow part), kitted out in helmet and high-visibility vest. She was a suburban eco warrior who refused to drive a car and lived off the grid. I could easily devote this whole post to her, but maybe another time.
Not surprisingly, “Louise” and “eccentric” soon became practically synonymous.
At the quirky end of the scale, a thirtysomething woman of my acquaintance takes her chicken everywhere, tucked under her arm. I never suspected chickens enjoyed shopping, but then what do I know.
The thing is, nobody has thought to question this woman’s sanity – she’s just dancing to a different drum. Now if that had been poor Louise or my gran, it would have been another story.
I call this ageist, I really do. Why should what is playful and original in the young be peculiar and abnormal in the old(er)? Why can’t we get rid of those preconceptions and give everyone credit for innovation and imagination?
The truth is, the older you get, the more it makes sense to follow your own inimitable way. After all, if not now – then when?