English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Why the dead are “late”

Q: Why do people refer to a deceased person as “late”? I googled the question, but found no satisfactory answers.

A: To begin at the beginning, the adjective “late” meant “slow,” “sluggish,” “idle,” or “negligent” when it showed up in Old English and other Germanic languages, including Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and Old High German.

It ultimately comes from lad-, an ancient Indo-European base that gave Latin lassus (weary), source of the English words “lassitude” and “alas,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

The earliest example of “late” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Pastoral Care (circa 897), King Ælfred’s translation of a sixth-century Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I:

“Sie æghwelc mon suiðe hræd & suiðe geornful to gehieranne, & suiðe læt to sprecenne” (“Let every man be very ready and eager to hear, and very late [that is, “slow”] to speak.”

The OED’s first example for the usual modern sense of “late” (“that occurs, comes, or happens after the proper, right, or expected time”) is from the Catholic Homilies of the Benedictine monk and scholar Ælfric of Eynsham, probably written between 990 and 995:

“Hi behreowsodon þæt hi ele næfdon, ac heora behreowsung wæs to lætt” (“They repented that they had no oil, but their repentance was too late”).

Since then, the adjective “late” has taken on many other senses, as in “a late winning goal,” “the late Elizabethan era,” “my late profession,” “sorry to call so late,” “it comes late in Hamlet,” “a late flowering perennial,” and so on.

The sense you’re asking about (“designating a person recently deceased”) showed up in the early 15th century, according to the OED. The first known example in writing is from a petition dated sometime before 1422: “Elizabeth, ye Wyfe of ye seid late Erle.”

The dictionary’s next example is from William Caxton’s 1490 Middle English translation (by way of French) of Virgil’s Aeneid: “Her swete and late amyable husbonde.”

The OED says the “recently dead” sense of “late” was apparently influenced by the use of the adverb “late” to mean “not long ago (but not now); recently, but no longer.”

Here’s an adverbial example, from a 1435 will, that hints at the adjectival usage: “Thys is the will o Isabell Dove, lat [that is, “formerly”] the wyf of Thomas Dove.”

The adverb also apparently led to the use of the adjective “late” to mean “former,” as in “my late profession” or “his late residence.”

The OED’s earliest citation for this sense is from a 1446 document about the finances at the Cistercian abbey in Cupar-Angus, Scotland:

“Item the … altarage of the Kyrk of South Alveth to our laeyt tenand Johne Wil[ȝ]amson for all the dayis of hys lyfe.” (The term “altarage,” which is now historical, refers here to the former tenant’s income from the offerings at a church altar.)

We’ll end with the use of the expression “the late lamented” in reference to someone who has recently died. The first OED example is from Uncle Silas, an 1864 thriller by the Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Here’s an expanded version:

“I beg pardon, Miss Ruthyn; perhaps you would be so good as to show to which of the cabinets in this room your late lamented father pointed out as that to which this key belongs.”

Note: We wrote a post in 2012 on an unusual use of “late” for “deceased” in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency novels.

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