Posted by: Jack Henry | July 7, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Late

Dear Editrix,

My friend was recently telling a story about her deceased husband and used the phrase “my late husband.” This is one I have heard often (e.g., my late parents, my late brother) and one I use regularly in my professional work. Do you know where it came from and why it is phrased as such?


Hi Brittany,

I have wondered the same about using late in this way. I mean, the dead aren’t ever going to be late to tea again, are they? Let’s see where this euphemism comes from.

The Grammarphobia web site provides a very lengthy description with a lot of old English in it, so I’m going to cut and paste just the best bits of it for you.

…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.”

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”….

In the radio show “A Way with Words,” one of the hosts, Grant Barrett, provides this guidance, including how long you can use “late” to referred to someone who is dead.

Late Meaning Deceased

When is it appropriate to use the word late to describe someone who has died? Late, in this sense, is short for lately deceased. There’s no hard and fast time frame, although it’s been suggested that anywhere from five to 30 years is about right. It’s best to use the word in cases where it may not be clear whether the person is still alive, or when it appears in a historical context, such as “The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 in honor of the late John F. Kennedy.”

I hope that helps!

And I just found out that it isn’t just ‘possums and dogs that play dead. Bunnies can play dead, too!

ASPCA Alert: No animals were actually harmed during the writing of this Editor’s Corner.

Kara Church

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Technical Editor, Advisory

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