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Why is the word late used to describe the recently deceased?

March 17th, 2009

Sometimes, we come across someone who says, “my late husband” or “my late father” when referring to someone deceased or someone who has passed away recently.  Although we understand what this means, not many people know why the word late is used to describe such meaning.

After all, what most people know of the word late is when a person or occurrence happens after the proper or usual time.  For example, when someone appears at 10:00 AM when the meeting was scheduled at 8:00 AM, he is considered as late.  Or, when spring is supposed to have arrived at a certain time of the year, but has not yet come, can be called as a late spring.

So how did the word “late” refer to someone that has recently passed away?  Why is it that a word that means arriving after the allowed or normal time, has come to describe the recently deceased?

All these questions, though how petty and trivial it might seem, is actually interesting and fun to speculate on.  There’s just something about trivia that fascinates the audience, because you know something that other people don’t.

There are many theories as to why the word late is used to describe the recently deceased.  Perhaps the most common reason behind such usage is for purposes of softening the blow.  When people refer to individuals who have passed away, and especially when they are loved ones or family members, it’s tough to actually state that they are “dead.”  That’s why we look for ways to euphemize the term and make it sound softer and lighter to listen to.

It’s very grave when we call someone “dead.”  Terms like “passed away” or “late” is then more preferred when it comes to calling the recently deceased.  Dead is a strong word that might not be suitable for use especially in sensitive situations.  That is why you often hear people referring to their deceased loved ones as “late.”

That is the reason why late is used to describe the recently deceased.  But as for the association behind the word “late” to mean arriving at a later time to “late” meaning recently deceased, there are only a few theories.  One can only ponder and speculate on this.

It could probably have come from the adverb use of “late” which is “lately,” meaning not long since but also not now.  Late could also mean towards the end, as in arriving late or arriving towards the end of the meeting.  When combining both, you can come up with “recently” as a synonym of “lately” and “deceased” from “towards the end.”

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