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I'm trying to get some clarification on whether or not it is impolite to use 老头 / 老头子 when speaking outside a group of friends when referring to a third party.

From my understanding 老头 is quite casual and I am interested to know if using this to describe someone's elder when also talking to another person who is also my elder, it may sound condescending?

Maybe I am completely off the mark because I understand that something 老王 is fine when referring to an elder and the use of "老" here is not a problem.

If this is somewhat impolite, is there a better word I can use similar to 老太太 to describe an older male?

Example sentence:

我今天看到一个老头在喂鸽子

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Nice question +1. But I think it's a controversial topic. 老头 can be neutral in some areas. –  Stan Sep 18 '13 at 6:48

6 Answers 6

老头 and 老头子 are truly impolite in most of the cases. But in some areas of China, when you are very familiar with the person, it's OK (though I personally do NOT like it)

For example, many people in Wuhan call their father 老头. They just think it's casual though I'd never say it.

My suggestion:

If you are <=10 years younger you can just call him/her (大)哥 or (大)姐

If you are more than 10 years younger you can call him/her 叔叔 or 阿姨 - You can always say this unless that person looks extremely old.

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I think that 伯伯 would be a better term to use to either address or refer to an older male. For one thing, the age is implicit rather than explicitly stated with 「老」. It's also more polite, and not slang. 「伯伯」 is a term that kids can use to address an adult; for a child to use 「老头子」 would be entirely inappropriate.

To get a rough sense of the difference in politeness, compare Google Image Search results:

You'll see that the results for 伯伯 are of a more serious and respectful nature.

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Generally speaking, the word "老" usually means "old", we usually put it in front of a noun as an adjective. Something like 老头(An old man),老太(An old woman)…… So these words are neither positive or nagetive, they just mean someone is old.

However, sometimes we can use "老" as fix phrases: 老鼠(mouse),老虎(tiger),老婆(wife),老师(teacher)……These phrases are ONLY meaning a kind of certain thing or man, ect. Having nothing to do with age (old) at all.

"老", used in front of a last name, meaning a polite to someone——老张,老李,老王……

"老”can be also used in other phrases meaning nagetive things: 老不死的(a dirty phrase meaning to curse/wish sb die immediately)

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Thanks for your answer. I've edited it slightly because you don't need to include my name, the person who asked the question is automatically contacted when a new answer is added. –  xiaohouzi79 Sep 25 '13 at 3:54

老头 / 老头子 are all mean "old man". But should not use those words to call a old man, it seems not polite.

There are some exceptions: (1) An old lady say something about his husband: "老头子", it has something like "nickname".

(2) Some young person call their aged leader. But never face to face. It has some what humour means.

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If you are the old man's wife or good friends, you can use 老头to speak to him. If not, you'd better use 老先生 to speak with him, and I think it is polite. I'm a Chinese, this is my advice.

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The counterpart of 老太太 could be 老先生. It has a sense of showing respect. You can also say 老奶奶 (female) and 老爷爷 (male), which is more neutral.

Personally I feel 老头 is impolite, especially when combined with "一个" as in "一个老头". I'd rather use 老人 to say 我今天看到一个老人在喂鸽子, of course, this doesn't imply the gender of the old person.

老头子 is more commonly found in how an old woman calls her husband... Depending on the context it could have positive or negative connotation.

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