Yesterday we were talking about something related to a business partner who, in terms of age, is our senior, and a question came up about whether we should say TG is like an older brother, or an elder brother.
Good question, actually, considering how in AmE the word “elder” is getting slowly phased out while in BrE the word still has a 50:50 usage. In IndE of course, we use these interchangeably, but are we correct when we do that?
As I do usually, let’s talk about the technicalities first. The word “elder” comes from the Old English “eldra” (oh, how I sucked in Old English back in college! Shame!) and this means a parent or other person who was born before you. Hence, there is a quantifier involved here: age. You know the age of your parents or the sibling born before you, and therefore, they are your elders. If TG was your own brother, you’d say he’s your elder brother.
The term is also used in religious context (The church elders) and sometimes in a social context (the village elders) but it is largely used within the immediate family.
Now, the word older is a comparative term for the word “old”, which comes from the Germanic “auld”. It is used to denote someone (or something, unlike the word “elder”) that has come before you, but you do not by how many days or years. I do not know what TG’s age is, but I do know that he was born before me. Hence, he is like an older brother.
In case of inanimate objects, you never use the word “elder” even if you can quantify the difference in age. For example, Christianity predates Scientology by a certain number of centuries. Yet, it will always be the “older” religion, and never the “elder” religion.
Let’s look at a usage example, shall we?
My eldest daughter is also the oldest child in school.
According to what I just told you, it will be my “eldest” daughter because I, being the parent, obviously know the relative age difference within the family and therefore, the age of my daughter. But I may not know the relative age difference in school. The demographic we are talking about may comprise children who are aged 6 as well as those who are aged 16. If my daughter is aged 17, then my daughter is the oldest child in the school because I do not know the age of any random person I am comparing her with in school.
However, in recent years, and largely due to the influence of AmE (read, Hollywood and US TV shows), the word “elder” is getting phased out. Therefore, it is equally common to hear “My oldest brother is a quarterback” or “my oldest daughter works in LAPD”. People use the term “older” to replace “elder” even in the family context: “My older sister is the sweetest person ever” or “my older brother is the worst poker player in the family”.
I am old-fashioned, and therefore, I still stick with the “elder brother” and “like an older brother” concept. Would you?