"The late xxxxs" is sometimes used to mean the later years of a decade, but it is also used to mean the later decades of a century.

For example,

"the late 1880s" usually means somewhere around 1887-1889.

"the late 1800s" usually means somewhere around 1870-1899.

However, in the latter example, what if I actually mean 1807-1809? How can I specify that I'm actually talking about the 1807-1809 range?

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    "Toward the end of the first decade of the 19th century."... usually there's nothing forcing you to use a set phrase especially if it's somewhat ambiguous. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Aug 27 '16 at 19:25
  • You wouldn't use "late" to specify anything prior to being at least halfway past the specified duration of time. If you want to refer to years in the first half of a century as its '07–'09 years would be, you would say early, or very early to be slightly more exact. Did you mean 1897–1899? If that is so, I would suggest editing the question. – Tonepoet Aug 27 '16 at 19:53
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    It's the two meanings of "1800s" you are really asking about. To my recollection, the meaning of 1800-1809 is something new (I don't recall ever hearing it before). And my guess is that it is just because we are in the 21 "teens" now. If you really want to refer to the first decade of a century, use something like "the aughts" - maybe "the 18 aughts"? – Drew Aug 27 '16 at 20:33

The best practice is simply to avoid the ambiguous usage with a clearer substitute: "...before 1810" or "...in the first decade of the 19th century" or, if you are thinking of particular years, be specific, "between 1807 and 1809".

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