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In Chinese culture, early is better than late. When we say something late it's almost always for a unpleasant or unwanted sense. Is it the same in English?

Is the word 'late' bad or neutral in connotation? And what about 'later'?

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Does the word 'late' come (that is, not 'comes' but 'come') – fedorqui Aug 7 '14 at 14:53
Better late than never. – 200_success Aug 7 '14 at 15:40

Being late is not a good thing. In pretty much any culture, I guess. But the word "late" is neutral. For starters, it has more than one meaning, and can be more "pleasant and wanted" than the alternatives. "Late Nelson Mandela" is much preferred over "dead Nelson Mandela".

Same for later. It could be a bad thing ("I don't have your money right now, I will return it later") or a good thing ("I don't have my boots right now, I will kick you later"), or it could be something devoid of any connotation, like a boilerplate valediction.

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See you later... – mplungjan Aug 7 '14 at 7:56
It's always good to be too late to be an innocent bystander. – Frank Aug 7 '14 at 8:05
Always try to be late to your own funeral. That's definetley a good thing.If you are in the habit of always being late, your friends will expect this and place high odds on it occurring. – Canis Lupus Aug 7 '14 at 8:23
As an aside, if you want a word that always has a bad connotation, tardy means late in the sense of "late for an appointment" but never any of the other meanings of late. – KutuluMike Aug 7 '14 at 15:06

Late actually has a 'non positive ' connotation in its meaning of 'not being on time'. It is also used referring to someone who has passed away (with reference to death). So in that respects the term has a stronger connotation than 'early', but not necessarily negative.


  • Usage Note: It is technically correct to use a phrase such as our late treasurer to refer to a person who is still alive but who no longer holds the relevant post, but the use of former in this context will ensure that no embarrassing misunderstanding is created.

Looking at its etymology, its origin comes from terms that all refer to some form of impediment ( sluggish, lazy, hinder ect.) that may suggest a 'negative connotation'.

Late: :

  • Old English læt "occurring after the customary or expected time," originally "slow, sluggish," from Proto-Germanic *lata- (cognates: Old Norse latr "sluggish, lazy," Middle Dutch, Old Saxon lat, German laß "idle, weary," Gothic lats "weary, sluggish, lazy," latjan "to hinder"), from PIE *led- "slow, weary" (cognates: Latin lassus "faint, weary, languid, exhausted," Greek ledein "to be weary"), from root *le- "to let go, slacken" (see let (v.)).

    • The sense of "deceased" (as in the late Mrs. Smith) is from late 15c., from an adverbial sense of "recently." Of women's menstrual periods, attested colloquially from 1962. Related: Lateness. As an adverb, from Old English late.

Later is more neutral in that it does not carry all the implications of 'late' and it just means 'afterwards'.


Source: http://www.etymonline.com

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When referring to e.g. a time of day, late can be neutral — it is just used in a relative sense.

I think I will go to bed as it is getting quite late.

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