Why the Dead are ‘Late’
They say don’t knock it before you’ve tried it, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that death is not nice. You can tell because we have so many ways of talking about it without actually talking about it. A wealth of these can be found in Victorian obituaries, whose subjects did anything but die; instead, they “paid the debt of nature” or “received the unexpected summons of the tribunal of their judge.” Then there are those idioms dripping with Tony Soprano-esque irreverence, like cash in your chips or buy the farm (or, of course, kick the bucket, so popular it’s inspired spin-offs like the snappier kick it or the Jack Nicholson-endorsed bucket list — yes, that term really does originate with the 2007 old-man comedy). It seems terribly human to want to find beauty or humour in the inevitable — although don’t ask me why we don’t have a remotely comparable number of colloquialisms for paying taxes.
This isn’t universal, however. In some cultures, the taboo surrounding death is more ingrained; among many indigenous Australian peoples, it is forbidden to speak the names of individuals who have recently passed away, and in cases where a deceased person’s name is also a word, that word will have to be avoided for a period of time. No comparable conventions exist in English, though in certain circumstances we prefer keeping allusions to death as succinct as possible. One highly euphemistic example is the practice of prefacing a person’s name with the words the late. I say “highly euphemistic” because, aside from being brief, it’s also possibly one of the most non-confrontational means of discussing mortality that we have, since it doesn’t convey an image of movement, changing state, falling asleep, meeting one’s maker, or any other action we’ve come to associate with death by way of metaphor. It’s all around pretty opaque. Why do we even use it? Isn’t it a bit unfair to be making jabs at the dead over their punctuality?
Well, obviously, this is not the intention. Late, in the sense of slow or delayed, is a pretty old word — in fact, it’s about as old as you can get, having been with us since the earliest days of our language — and across time it has, as you might expect, had dalliances with various different meanings. It began to be used interchangeably with recently during the Middle English period, which then led to its adjectival use meaning former, which, in turn, is likely what paved the way for its adoption as a synonym for deceased. One of the earliest examples of this sense given by The Oxford English Dictionary, dating from 1490, refers to a woman’s “swete and late amyable husbonde.” It would have been possible to read late as ex here, except that divorce hadn’t yet made its sizzling debut in England, so this sentence and others like it don’t leave much room for ambiguity. The meaning of deceased has all but eclipsed its predecessor by now, although the word remains restricted to attributive use (that is to say, it can only be placed before the noun it describes, not after it), likely a vestige of its original meaning. This is beginning to change in some varieties of English spoken in Africa, however. “My father is late so my mother is very important to me”, said the Nollywood actress Bhaira Mcwizu in an interview with Modern Ghana.
The prescribed meaning of late in this context is “recently deceased” — so say the OED, Merriam-Webster, and Collins — with some rather heated debates taking place, both among lexicographers and online language fanatics, over how long the “statute of limitations” on the term’s use should be. To some English speakers, there is none. Donald Trump once made a reference to “the late, great Abraham Lincoln”, who has been dead, well, quite a while now. E Ward Gilman, editor of Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, cites a number of authors whose estimates range from fifteen to fifty years, but in general, the consensus seems to be that it can be used in reference to anyone whose death is within living memory of the speaker — quite a wide berth, but still not wide enough to include Lincoln. Sorry, Don.
Similar practices can be observed in other languages: the French stick the word “feu”, literally meaning fire, in front of the names of the dead, conjuring up the gnarly image of an ancient funeral pyre ritual. Actually, the term comes from the Latin “fatutus”, which simply means unfortunate. Personally, I like late — it’s short, nondescript, and, to invent a folk etymology, sort of appropriate. If the dead are late, it’s because they’ve transcended their earthly preoccupation with time. For the rest of us, as (the now late himself, sadly) MF DOOM put it, the clock ticks faster.