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I went to the dentist half a year ago, but when I mentioned that to my girlfriend, I said that I went there "the other day." She said that events which happened such a long time ago definitely did not happen "the other day", but this violated my understanding of the phrase; I would use it to refer to any event that happened in the relatively recent past—maybe at some point in the last two years. My girlfriend would not use it to refer to any event that happened less recently than last month. Neither of us is a native speaker of English, so I would like to ask: which understanding is closer to common English usage? When is an event so old that the phrase "the other day" no longer applies?

Note: I understand that phrases like this are of course not clearly defined and usage may depend on the speaker and the context. But nevertheless there must be some kind of vague time frame at work here; one would not say that an event which happened twenty years ago happened the other day, but it would be fine to say so if it happened a week ago. So what I want to know is if there exists a bit tighter limit on this time frame.

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    I'm not sure with this answer so I'm writing it as a comment, but I think 'the other day' refers to an unspecific day from the past other than yesterday, which cannot actually be defined in any other way. Like, it can't be 20 years ago, because you /can/ say "20 years ago" instead. Same thing with "last year", or "last week", etc. Maybe it works like "next time"...? – potatoesandnoodles May 11 '15 at 0:58
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    I suppose the other day basically means the one which isn't today (or yesterday, the other specific one). It strikes me as quirky that the definite article unambiguously identifies a day in the past. Whereas an other day, is like *"I'll see you another time" - it's always a future day. I think when you get old enough you can say things like "I still like Morecambe and Wise. I remember we saw them on TV the other Christmas". You can certainly have seen someone the other week when it was too long ago to be the other day. – FumbleFingers May 11 '15 at 1:01
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    The word "other" is key here. Other with respect to what? I agree with @FumbleFingers, the idiom must have started as a way to identify a recent, unspecific day that wasn't today, yesterday or the day before yesterday (which are clearly identifiable). It's a useful shorthand though when you don't want to think hard about when something happened. But as far as the question goes, I would say that the "reference range" for "the other day" is ~1 week. – UncleZeiv May 11 '15 at 11:08
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    A more appropriate phrase choice might have been "a while ago". It is a somewhat longer timeframe than "the other day". – Zak Henry May 11 '15 at 12:53
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    When is an event so old that the phrase "the other day" no longer applies? When it's more than 5 days, 13 hours, and 27 minutes old. – Hot Licks May 11 '15 at 22:46
32

The Free Dictionary says "at a certain time past, not distant, but indefinite; not long ago; recently; rarely, the third day past." Collins simply says "a few days ago." So your girlfriend is closer to right. But to me, a limit of about a week, not a month, sounds right; otherwise, say "last week," "a week or two ago," etc.

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    There's a slight age-based relativity to this as well. I've caught myself the other daying events that I almost immediately realised weren't even in the current century. Tempus fugit. (Feel free to pronounce fugit in whatever manner seems appropriate for the occasion.) – bye May 11 '15 at 6:43
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    I agree with this on the grounds that "the other week" and "the other month" are also phrases that are in use (in British English, at the very least, as discussed in this question). So once time elapsed since "the other day" has exceeded a full week (at the most), it seems to me that the event would have occurred "the other week" and not "the other day". – recognizer May 11 '15 at 16:27
  • @bye -- I relate; the other speaker tends to retort with how long ago such an occurrence was or with incredulity at who would remember. – Vandermonde May 12 '15 at 22:00
  • Then again, I'm not exactly known as one to relinquish a grudge while their lungs still draw breath. Maybe that's got something to do with it. – Vandermonde May 12 '15 at 22:03
10

Although most people agree that whatever happened last week, but not a year ago, can be said to have occurred "the other day", any attempt to specify time limits would be opinion-based. I might use the phrase for any event that occurred during the past four weeks, but some people may not agree.

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    I feel like in the Winnie the Pooh stories, both Rabbit and Owl used phrases like "the other day" to refer to events a season or two ago. But maybe life was slower and simpler then. – Dan Bron May 11 '15 at 1:01
  • Fairly sure some character in Winnie the Pooh defined a "long time ago" as maybe "last week". Similarly, as Centaurus stated, "the other day" is highly subjective. – Keith May 11 '15 at 2:50
6

This caught my eye, because my wife & I have very-very different perceptions of what "the other day" means. She grew up in SE Asia with a British school education, so she's fluent in English, so it's not a misunderstanding of the idea, I think it's a cultural perception thing.

When she says "the other day", it can mean any time in the past few years, whereas I, growing up in the US, think of it as no more than maybe a couple of weeks ago at the very most. This has lead to some interesting discussions until we realized the disparity in our views. I don't believe either view is wrong, just different.

This doesn't really answer the OP's question, it just sheds some light on how different people may perceive the passage of time differently and so the amount of time that has passed when the saying is used can have fluid boundaries.

3

I would use "the other day" in place of a day that I could specify but the exact day was forgotten (or unimportant) - was it yesterday, or the day before, or last Tuesday? Once the event occurred at least a week ago and I'm scrambling to remember which week it was, not which day (I wouldn't usually specify "three Tuesday's ago"), I would use "the other week".

As noted by others, age may play a factor, too: at an older age, events that occurred within the past few months might seem as if they occurred within the week.

3

Crystal wrote in 1966:

"Time relations in English are handled more by the careful use of adverbials ... than any other means."

To my ear, the word "day" anchors the past event to a point in time past that can be easily counted in days. Were you to say "the other week", I would consider the event to be easily countable in terms of weeks. Likewise for larger units of time: months, seasons, etc.

All we really know is that event happened in the definite past and, without other context, have to interpret based on individual associations with the phrase.

Citation

1

"The other day" emphasizes the recentness of the event; as such, the range varies somewhat depending on the event. Something that is only expected to happen rarely, or which seems particularly notable, will be "just the other day" for longer than a common or otherwise non-notable event. (If I got a phone call the other day, then if it was from my cousin, it might be months ago; from my best friend, it was probably this week.

Six months ago is stretching it, though, in any case -- "the other day" should always be a day recent enough that one almost feels one could count it out, if one took the time.

0

I'd always thought "the other day" meant the day before yesterday, although I can't find a citation for this. Certainly "to do X every other day" means to do it every second day.

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    I'd suggest this would be better posted as a comment rather than an answer. – Dan Bron May 11 '15 at 17:52
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    "Every other day" != "the other day". The meaning of idiomatic phrases usually isn't a simple composition of the meanings of the individual words or subphrases. – David Richerby May 12 '15 at 15:05
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There's no definitive time limit for the phrase "the other day," but I believe most people who are native English speakers generally take it to mean within the last week. They wouldn't use it to refer to something that happened months ago. I usually say that something happened "the other day" when it was the day before yesterday, or possibly a few days ago. In fact, I even feel that I may be misleading in describing an event that happened, say, 4 days ago as occurring "the other day." My personal limit is a few days, maybe a week if you're stretching it. It is basically a day that if you stopped and thought for a second, you could recall fairly easily, but just for convenience sake you designate it with "the other day." If it happened a week ago, you would just say "last week." I think that most people will generally understand "the other day" to mean less than a week ago.

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    add citation(s) to support you answer please. – lbf Mar 14 '18 at 20:36
-1

I would use 'some time ago', which to me means from a couple of weeks to a year ago. I am a native English speaker....

Edit - so I'd stop using 'the other day' when the event is more than a week or two old.

  • This doesn't appear to answer the question, so much as avoid it. – Dan Bron May 12 '15 at 13:11
  • Ok - point takes. Answer edited accordingly. – Steve Ives May 12 '15 at 13:14
  • Cool. Now all we need is a source to back up your intuition, here. – Dan Bron May 12 '15 at 13:15
  • Good luck with a that I.e. a definitive, dictionary definition of the phrase, saying precisely after how many days it's no longer appropriate. – Steve Ives May 12 '15 at 13:36
  • Yep! That's the premise of this question, and the reason I didn't try to answer it. – Dan Bron May 12 '15 at 13:39

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