Burden is today often applied to elderly people in two senses, for the fiscal load of income support and health and social care costs, and for notions and scales of care-giving effort and stress. It does not however convey straightforward meanings for its understanding is affected by two millenia of metaphorical and rhetorical usage. The use of burden tends to simplify relationships, whether between age-groups of a population or between a carer and an elderly person, and it communicates senses of a nuisance and an excessive charge. Portentous implications are invoked from biblical senses and derogatory overtones are strengthened by association, earlier this century, with racial stereotyping. An etymological survey reveals many sources of the word's versatility and rhetorical power. Important extensions of usage towards the two contemporary gerontological applications are then studied. A bibliometric examination of the surge in the word's social science use since the early 1980s is undertaken, and the paper concludes with a discussion of current usage as evidence of current attitudes towards, and constructions of, old age on the part of politicians and policy analysts.