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I could never figure this out. Is this structure only for those who have recently passed?

The late Steve Jobs...

Or can I use it to refer to someone who died a long time ago?

The late George Washington...

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Are you asking what the threshold is between being called 'late' and not having to bother? –  Mitch May 29 '12 at 20:42
    
Yeah, pretty much. –  esqew May 29 '12 at 20:47
    
Note for later readers: a very similar question was asked again here, and for some reason attracted a lot more detailed answers. –  PLL Apr 24 at 13:25
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1 Answer

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes it is most appropriate for use with those who were recently living.

For an explanation:

The sense of "deceased" (as in the late Mrs. Smith) is from late 15c., from an adverbial sense of "recently."

-From http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=late&allowed_in_frame=0

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The handbook. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 May 29 '12 at 23:45
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