So that Adele song, ‘Rumor Has It’, has been stuck in my head and has me wondering about the line, ‘she is half your age’, because Adele was 21 when she sang that….so how old was this dude? Because the only way he could have a girlfriend half his age and it not be illegal is if he was in his late 30s to forties…which would make Adele half his age, too, and take the sting out of that burn. I mean unless dude’s got a teenager. Wtf?
Oh man, it’s one of those little logic puzzles like used to be on the GRE! But to solve it we also need linguistics! It’s like my birthday!
We’ll start this with the song, for those who haven’t heard it/want a re-listen (and you know everybody wants to hear this song again, it kicks ass):
Cool. So let’s jump in and reduce this tune to some quality algebra. First we have Adele. Most of the time I’d say we need to leave some leeway about her age – can’t always assume that the singer and the song’s main character are the same – but “21” is the friggin name of the album, so I’m calling this a constant. Adele’s age = A = 21. Then there’s the boyfriend, whose age can be P, and the young girl (get outta my mind – wait, no! wrong song!), whose age’ll be X.
You’re right – as it stands, there’s no way to make this work. If X is 18, and P is 36, then the age gap between X and A is so small compared to both of their age gap with P that Adele looks hypocritical, and P shouldn’t be dating either of them. But if we bring the boyfriend’s age down, say P=24, then it makes sense with Adele, but suddenly X is Lolita.
Here’s where we need to bring in a little linguistics: the phrase “half your age” is idiomatic. An idiom is a phrase* that has a figurative meaning. An idiom starts life as just a couple of words that people tend to use together, which becomes a set phrase, which then gains a meaning apart from its literal one. Some idioms are closely related to their literal origins – “it’s not rocket science” means “it’s not difficult,” not hard to see the connection there. Others grow farther away from their literal roots over time – why have dead people “bought the farm”?**
“Half your age” is idiomatic because we’re not counting exact years. What we really mean is that dating that person is creepy. The gulf between life experiences is too wide, and the older person might be preying on the younger. That’s what we’re calling people out on; there’s not necessarily a meaningful line at the halfway mark. Older couples can have a much wider age gap, with the younger person at or near 50% of the older party’s age – a sixty-year-old could date a thirty-something with outsiders only occasionally bringing this up, because the experiential gap has narrowed. But “half” is too low an estimate at the young end. Calling out a thirty-year-old friend for hanging out in bars and hitting on guys “half her age” means she’s flirting with twenty-year-olds, not fifteen-year-olds.
So X=(1/2)P is not exactly what we need. But I don’t want to lose any hope of objectivity in this! What we need is a more accurate model. Fortunately, playwright F. Hugh Herbert is here for us. He formulated what Randall Monroe (of xkcd) later popularized around the internet as the Standard Creepiness Rule:
That +7 makes all the difference. Now the much smaller age gaps acceptable at younger ages are more accurately reflected, and the age range still widens quickly as people get older. It’s not perfect (thirteen-year-olds can’t date?) but it’s a better estimate of what “half your age” means in use.
Now we’re cooking with bacon grease. Using this, we can first calculate an age range for the boyfriend, and then use that to solve for X. If we assume Adele’s not being creepy (and I do), then the youngest her ex could be is P=(A/2)+7=17.5, let’s round that to 18, and the oldest he could be is A=(P/2)+7, or P=2A-14, so P=28.
Now that we have his age range, let’s look at what “half his age” approximately reflects:
Can we narrow this down further? Sure. I included ages for the boyfriend that are younger than Adele, because she’s doesn’t specifically say he’s not (listen to the song imagining that the guy’s 18 and the ingénue is 15… hmmm). But it’s much more common for the guy to be older than the gal in a relationship, so let’s drop those first two. And the last two are nearing the sting-removal territory you mentioned in your question – it’s much less weird for a 26-year-old to date a 21-year-old than a 19-year-old, but they’re still pretty close. And what’s the youngest the gal could be? Adele calls her ex out for dating this kid, but she’s not running to the police. The age of consent is 16 in England, so that seems like a reasonable minimum.
So there you have it: the ex is 22-24, his new gal is 16-18. And Adele’s probably better off with him out of her life, anyway.
The Language Nerd
*Or word, or whole sentence, but mostly a phrase.
**No one’s sure, but a few theories are outlined here.
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Idioms from John Saeed. Standard Creepiness Rule from Herbert by way of xkcd, who notably removed the unbalanced genders from the original. Oh, and Wiks has a great list of other languages’ idioms similar to our “kick the bucket” – check it out.