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Not long ago I found on the Internet a lot of different road signs from India. Here is one of them:

Be Mr Late Better Than Late Mr

It says: "Be Mr Late Better Than Late Mr". I can't understand the meaning of this phrase. I understand that it's some word play but can't catch the idea.

Can you explain this to me?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It is a road sign that is meant to implore drivers to slow down.

In this case, being "Mr. Late" means that you are habitually late. In other words, you are late so often that it may as well be your name.

Being "late Mr." means that you are dead. For example, someone might refer to "the late Mr. Smith" if they were talking about someone named Smith who died recently. (see definition 2a here: living comparatively recently : now deceased)

So, all together, the phrase is advising you that it is better to be late, even if it means you are known as that guy who is always late, than it is to speed and risk getting killed in an accident.

So that you can see it in context, here is a photo of another road sign with a similar expression:

road sign

(from the flikcr of henrikj, CC by attribution)

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The phrase is in an Indian ideolect, so it's not "standard" English. It can be dissected.

"The late Mr Jones" indicates that Mr Jones has died. This is the meaning of the final two words.

"Mr Late" is used rather like a nickname — someone who is delayed and has missed an appointment.

The whole thing means "Arrive behind schedule, not dead", and is an exhortation to slow down rather than be killed in an accident because of excess speed.

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7  
None of the items are particular to Indian English, but I wouldn't expect the light humor to appear on a an official sign in the US. –  Mitch Nov 7 '12 at 18:29
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@Mitch Isn't "Late Mr" particular to Indian English? I think the British would say something like "Be late not late" and leave the reader to work it out, or "Be a late arrival, not late lamented", but the UK doesn't go in for light humour on road signs -- or indeed, dark humour. However I did find this image from the US, which wouldn't happen in the UK. –  Andrew Leach Nov 7 '12 at 18:47
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Be Mr. Late, not "the late Mr. ..." You just need the article " the", quotes to delineate "the late ..." as a phrase, and ellipses to show that something is elided (the reader's name). –  Kaz Nov 7 '12 at 20:56
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@Andrew: From the little experience I have with Indian English, no, 'Late Mr' does not sound particularly Indian. It does sound weird, but sounds very deliberate phrasing purely to get the reversal to work. A bit awkward but not sounding Indian. –  Mitch Nov 7 '12 at 21:09
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@Izkata: Right. It's definitely awkward, but sometimes puns are forced. So I don't see it as necessarily something that Indians would say and others not (at least not linguistically). –  Mitch Nov 7 '12 at 21:24

It's a play on the word late which can have multiple meanings:

  1. doing something or taking place after the expected, proper, or usual time:
    his late arrival
  2. (the/one's late) (of a specified person) no longer alive:
    the late Francis Bacon

By the above definitions, the road sign can be interpreted as,

Driving slowly and arriving late is better than driving fast and "arriving" dead.

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