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TWTS: When "late" is the difference between life and death

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Sometimes the shortest words are the most complicated.

Take "late," for example. It's a short word, easy to spell and pronounce, but it comes with a laundry list of meanings, some of which you really don't want to confuse.

If your boss asks you to let everyone know they're running late for a company meeting, you'd know your boss won't be arriving on time. However, if you start referring to your "late boss," people might assume your boss won't be showing up for that meeting, or any in the future, for that matter.

Those are just two of the various meanings of "late." Dictionaries will list up to a dozen. When you look at the history of "late," it's not hard to see how all of these various meanings are related.

The oldest sense of "late" was used in Old English to describe something that was slow or sluggish. It could also describe something that occurs after the expected time -- perhaps because someone or something was slow or sluggish.

In the 15th century, "late" also came to refer to the end portions of a time period, as in "late in the day" or "the late 1980s." This meaning also can be seen in expressions like "it was a late addition" or "it was a late goal in the game."

A final group of senses relates to recent time. This is where "late" can be used to refer something like a late-model Mustang, i.e., a more recent model of that particular vehicle. It can also refer to someone who has recently died, such as late former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright or the Foo Fighters' late drummer Taylor Hawkins. Both died just last week.

There's a debate among usage guides over how long we should continue to use "late" to describe someone who's died. In other words, how long must we wait before we assume everyone is aware of a death? Some usage guides say five years, while others say up to fifty years.

Bryan Garner notes in his usage guide that the question is whether a fair number of "reasonable readers" would know or need to be reminded that a person has died. For example, it's probably not necessary to use "late" in reference to former President John F. Kennedy.

However, Garner also says that using "late" to refer to a deceased person also offers a note of respect or perhaps sorrow. For example, he points out that just a few months after Diana, Princess of Wales died, people referred to her as "the late Princess Diana." That wasn't because anyone needed to be reminded that she had died, but because people were still mourning her death. In this same vein, you may also hear someone refer to their "late spouse" as a sign of respect and sorrow.

There's plenty more to talk about when it comes to "late," including its two comparative forms, "later" and "latter," and its various superlative forms, including "latest," "last," and "latemost." Stay tuned to hear us discuss those forms and more on an upcoming That's What They Say.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.