The Culture Verbal Energy Verbal Energy

In a new year, two kinds of lateness

After year-end remembrances of the dear departed, a look at why we call them ‘late.’

Carrie Fisher appears at the 2011 NewNowNext Awards in Los Angeles. The actress is one of the celebrities who died during 2016.
Chris Pizzello/AP | Caption
  • Ruth Walker

I’ve been thinking of two kinds of lateness recently – only one of which has anything to do with punctuality.

Yes, in the new year, I’m resolving – again – to demonstrate more reliably on-time arrival for appointments. 

The other lateness came to mind with the year-end remembrances of the dear departed: Why do we call them “late”? We don’t mean to suggest that they just missed the boat into the new year, do we?

This usage goes back to the 15th century: The Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from 1490: “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.” 

This sense seems to come from lateness as “recentness” rather than tardiness. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces late to the Old English læt, “occurring after the customary or expected time.” Late originally meant “slow, sluggish, slack, lax, negligent.”

Lately first came on the scene as a straight-up adverbial equivalent of this original late. It meant “slowly, sluggishly,” etc. But since the 15th century lately has meant “recently.” When we need an adverb for something “occurring after the customary or expected time,” it is, of course, just plain late: “He came late to the party.”

Oxford defines the adjectival late as in the “late amyable husbonde” thus: “Of a person: that was alive not long ago, but is not now; recently deceased.”

Oxford tags this sense “attrib.,” and adds that it is used “[c]hiefly with the or possessive adjective.” It precedes what it modifies: “the late John Smith,” or “my late uncle.”

Beatles fans have etched onto the tablet of consciousness late of, meaning “formerly,” as in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”: “The Hendersons will all be there/ Late of Pablo Fanques Fair, what a scene...!”

How long does a deceased person get to be “late”? Not once he or she has truly passed into history. “The late President Kennedy” just isn’t right. But editorial experience suggests “the late” can be helpfully inserted as a reminder that a public figure has indeed died, and not just retired from public life.

“The late” can be helpful outside the public realm as well. Take this example: “She is trying to decide whether to sell the vacation home she and her late husband bought a few years before he retired.”

It’s something one might say to a friend about another mutual friend whom the first friend doesn’t know as well. The addition of that simple “late” suggests a world of detail about the psychological reality of the situation: the circumstances of the original purchase, the motivation for a potential sale (or not), the resources “she” will have to call upon as she makes her decision, and so on. 

“The late” can be a gently euphemizing way to signal someone’s no-longer-current status by saying that he or she was “lately” (recently) alive but is no longer. 

It is, you might say, a glass-half-full way of communicating. And it can be useful.