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If you were to read some news like “Movie X is the highest-grossing since (earlier) Movie Y” or “Earthquake X is the deadliest since Y” or “Gold prices are highest since the spike in year Y” or similar — does that imply that the new, recent event X surpasses the historical reference event Y, or was Y still bigger/deadlier/higher?

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I think the only reliable conclusion you can draw from that construction is that both occasions are notable. It probably also suggests that the newest event is not the greatest of all time (or they'd report that instead), but things like that can change for ongoing events. –  Bradd Szonye May 17 '13 at 19:38
    
I think this is a pointless question. If the weatherman tells you last month was the hottest since [some earlier month], it stands to reason he's trying to impress upon you how long ago that was, and thus how "newsworthy" the information is. If in fact the records are so imprecise that the temperature in that earlier month was effectively equal to last month, he'd almost certainly go back further, so he could say it hasn't been hotter than last month since [some even earlier month]. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 22:14
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To @FumbleFingers' point, two examples: (A) "Yesterday was the hottest May 16th ever!" If the weatherman said (B) "Yesterday was the hottest May 16th since 1938", that would imply that May 16th, 1938 was hotter. If not, the weatherman would have used example (A). –  Kristina Lopez May 17 '13 at 22:39
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@Kristina: haha - there's slightly borderline case for me in that. I agree hottest ever could mean hotter than or at least as hot as any previously-recorded value, but I'd tend to interpret your (A) as meaning no other May has been this hot. I think if yesterday and May 16 1938 were actually equally hot the weatherman would double-check the records, because he'd like to go back even further if he possibly could. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 22:52
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@Kristina: Although climate change is often referred to as "global warming", in practice what it means at the level of years and decades is more variability, rather than more heat. In a few years time those weather readers will all be silenced by laryngitis caused by constantly hollering out HOTTEST, COLDEST, WETTEST, DRYEST, WINDIEST, etc. Meanwhile, I'll be waiting with bated breath to see what superlative they can come out with for day when there was least air movement over a 24-hour period. –  FumbleFingers May 17 '13 at 23:09
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2 Answers

Typically the writer of such a phrase expects the reader to infer that Y (the earlier event) was bigger, deadlier, or higher than X (the recent event); and typically that is what readers do. It is true that in point of fact such phrases don't actually say, and don't logically imply, that conclusion. But in ordinary conversation the implication is taken for granted.

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Taken at face value, it does imply that Y was not surpassed, but its use is often figurative, such as in, "This is the greatest thing since sliced bread," and not meant to be taken literally.

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Right, sure, but this question is not about the figurative use. The sentence often comes up non-figuratively in the news. –  Timwi May 17 '13 at 19:48
    
(otherwise, in the example, that thing isn't that great after all!) –  Gnubie May 17 '13 at 19:48
    
In that case, it implies that Y doesn't surpass X. –  Gnubie May 17 '13 at 19:49
    
Are you sure? I notice I named them confusingly; in my question, X is the new, recent event and Y is the historical reference point. Did you mean what you said or the opposite? –  Timwi May 17 '13 at 19:53
    
My bad: I meant X doesn't surpass Y. –  Gnubie May 20 '13 at 11:44
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