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I know late wife is a common term (dead wife). How about late girlfriend? If that's not the case, what's the most used term?

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Just to be clear, you are referring to someone who is no longer living I presume. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 24 at 10:12
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Yes, not a girlfriend who is late for dinner or late with her period. –  janoChen Apr 24 at 10:14
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@janoChen b/c the latter is called a baby-momma. –  BigHomie Apr 24 at 15:37
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"Late" as a euphemism for "dead" is, I think, a little odd-sounding even to native English speakers; Douglas Adams, for instance, played with it in the scene in H2G2 when Arthur meets Slartibartifast. S: Come now or you will be late. A: Late? What for? S: What is your name, human? A: Dent. Arthur Dent. S: Late as in the late Dentarthurdent. It's a sort of threat, you see." –  Kyle Strand Apr 24 at 17:57
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@KyleStrand It's fairly normal in British English. –  David Richerby Apr 24 at 21:13

6 Answers 6

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Depends on the circumstances; "dead girlfriend" definitely sounds more dramatic and gives a sense of someone who may have been killed or died in an accident. It's a very direct expression and some might feel uncomfortable using it. If you have been following the Pistorius murder trial the term is frequently used

Oscar Pistorius breaks down describing shooting dead girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp source

The athlete, the first double-amputee to ever compete in an Olympics, told his dead girlfriend’s family he was sorry — a move that immediately struck some lawyers as odd. source

On the other hand "late girlfriend" is a softer term, and suggests that the speaker remembers his girlfriend affectionately and with fondness.

I saw the video for P.S. I LOVE U. I remembered my late girlfriend and cried… source

Both expressions are commonly used.


Edit

Google Ngram charts

The OP's question led me to investigate further, so I turned to Google Ngram to see what I could find. Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of this tool as I've seen too many people abuse this feature in the past, but in this case the results are curious and they might be of interest. I'm posting the American English corpus charts because the British English corpus, astonishingly, had no results for "his late girlfriend". The graphs are set between 1950 to 2000. We are concerned with the modern usage of "late girlfriend" not in its history.

enter image description here

The graph above appears to show an impressive divergence, I then added the following expressions; his late wife and his dead wife, in order to compare the results.

enter image description here

Now the divergence between late vs dead girlfriend appears to be practically insignificant. It's worth mentioning that the term "late + spouse/relative" always comes second to "dead + spouse/relative". Here's another graph but without the term wife

enter image description here

I leave the OP to draw his own conclusions.

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Clear and good answer - but your Pistorius example doesn't use "dead" as an adjective. I admit I have not followed the details, but I am quite sure he does not stand accused of shooting his dead girlfriend. Rather, he allegedly shot her dead. –  oerkelens Apr 24 at 6:52
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@oerkelens There is no allegation, he shot her, that is a fact. The question is whether he believed there was an intruder hiding in the bathroom. Was the murder intentional or was it manslaughter? As for dead not being used as an adjective, the example is taken from a newspaper headline, and I can now see the two different interpretations. Does he describe how he shot his girlfriend dead OR how he shot his dead girlfriend.? Thanks for pointing it out! –  Mari-Lou A Apr 24 at 6:59
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@MariLouA I just wanted to make sure I didn't get into legal issues by saying he shot her before the trial was over ;) I agree both interpretations are possible, but I doubt that shooting at a person who is already dead would warrant a murder trial - so I would assume it's about how he shot her dead. If he would tell how he found his dead girlfriend, the confusing would be gone :) –  oerkelens Apr 24 at 7:03
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I think with the Pistorius example, the "dead" attaches to "shooting" not "girlfriend". As in She was shot dead by Pistorius or He is accused of shooting dead his girlfriend. –  Neil Apr 24 at 9:23
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@Neil I think there's a case for saying "he described how he shot his dead girlfriend" We identify the poor girl as to be dead, otherwise the journalist should've said: "...describing shooting his girlfriend (name) dead" Newspaper headlines are not always 100% grammatical. Maybe it would make a good question for EL&U? –  Mari-Lou A Apr 24 at 9:31

It would be OK if she died while still being your girlfriend.

If she is still alive and you have split up it's much more common to say

ex-girlfriend

Slightly humorous warning below (that should appear if you mouse over it)

A degree of caution is required should you have split up and then your ex-girlfriend died. This would make her your late ex-girlfriend which could be misunderstood for something quite different.

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and what would that different be? –  Gaurav Agarwal Apr 24 at 10:35
    
@GauravAgarwal Sorry, I don't understand what you are asking? –  Frank Apr 24 at 10:38
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@GauravAgarwal I think I understand, you ask what 'late ex-girlfriend could be misunderstood' means ? It's a play on words late ex-girlfriend is correct but could be heard as latex girlfriend. Be cautious searching for images of latex girlfriend if you are at work (or already have a wife or girlfriend), it could either be a girlfriend who likes to wear latex (a tight rubbery material) or it could be an inflatable doll girlfriend. –  Frank Apr 24 at 10:42
    
Thanks.. got it.. :) –  Gaurav Agarwal Apr 24 at 11:02
    
But - no - it is not common! –  user3306356 Apr 24 at 14:52

Yes; this usage of the word late has no specific restriction to wives, girlfriends, or any other particular relationship or position of people. It is simply a somewhat respectful, tactful way to talk about any dead person. It is mostly used for people who have died comparatively recently, but not exclusively; the subtleties of that point are discussed in some excellent answers here.

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I'd use the word departed or deceased. They're harder to pronounce, but deceased seems more sympathetic than dead.

Late isn't an impolite word, but it's much more commonly used for someone who's going to show up in a few hours.

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Re your second para: late is a very unusual adjectives, in that (when applied to people) its meaning depends on its grammatical position. When given as a complement --- my girlfriend was late --- then as you say, it means someone who's going to show up in a while. But when it modifies a noun --- my late girlfriend --- then it pretty unambiguously means they're dead. –  PLL Apr 24 at 20:57
    
Perhaps so in a native English speaking country. But where the speaker or listener are used to different language structures, it can be a bit ambiguous. –  Muz Apr 26 at 3:01

Using the adjectives deceased or departed would prevent the unintentional ambiguity with the alternate meanings for dead such as boring, cadaverous, cold, etc. The adjective late has even more ambiguity even if it feels kinder. But the phrase "dead girlfriend" feels almost disrespectful to her in my intuitions as a listener.

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It's not a commonly used term that I'm aware of, and I'm sure that you next girlfriend won't appreciate your use of that term, should you choose to continue dating despite your epic heartbreak. Former girlfriend or one of your old girlfriends sounds a lot more like you parted on mutual terms, if you want to avoid the negative connotations of ex-girlfriend. If anyone inquires as to what happened, you can then explain if you want to.

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This doesn't answer the question, which is whether it's reasonable to refer to a deceased former girlfriend as "late", not about what other phrasing you could use to talk about such a situation, or about the situation of a person who is no longer your girlfriend for reasons other than her dying. –  David Richerby Apr 24 at 15:24
    
@DavidRicherby That's a subjective question yes/no question which is a poor question for the site. Common to what demographic/location? Also, the OP says if not, what is a more common term? so I gave a more common term. –  BigHomie Apr 24 at 15:38
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But you gave a more common term for a different concept. –  David Richerby Apr 24 at 15:41

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