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This has confused me for a very long time. I might be overthinking this and this may be a super simple concept, but if anyone can confirm or clarify, I'd really appreciate it! :-)

When the media use 'since' to compare something to a previous benchmark, I'm not sure I totally understand what is being said.

A couple of examples:

    1. "Israeli air strikes against Syria 'biggest since 1982'"
    1. "US trade deficit largest since President George W. Bush"

In #1, does this mean that the Israeli air strikes in 1982 were bigger than the current ones? OR was there a peak in 1981 or before?

In #2, does this suggest that the US trade deficit was larger under President George W Bush? OR was the trade deficit larger prior to George W Bush's administration?

The more I think about this the more confused I get. I guess what I'm trying to understand is in the construct:

"X is the biggest since Y", is Y the high water mark?

3 Answers 3

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"since Y" means "the period after Y". So "this is the biggest X since Y" means "of all X after Y, this is the biggest". If a "since Y" is included, there's usually a reason: either Y was bigger, or data from before Y is not available. For instance, if records of snowfall go back only to 1850 in a particular region, a snowfall might be reported as "The most snow since 1850", because it's unknown whether snowfall before 1850 was larger. So in cases where records have been kept, one can generally infer that Y is bigger (otherwise, why exclude it), but it's not explicitly asserted. "[The] US trade deficit [is the] largest since President George W. Bush" means that the current trade deficit is larger than all other trade deficit after Bush. Trade deficits during Bush's term would not be included. It's implied that at some point during Bush's term, trade deficits were higher than they are now, but the statement would be literally true even if trade deficits under Bush were never higher.

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The use of since has more subtleties than I was aware of, and you have good reason to be confused, it also confused me
"Since" can mean:

1.from a definite past time until now
3.after a time in the past

So when saying "since 1982" could mean from 1982 onward, or from after 1982 onward. One being inclusive and the other being exclusive of the earlier time.

"Israeli air strikes against Syria 'biggest since 1982'"

Technically it's not necessary that there were bombings in 1982, that's just the time they chose as the beginning from which to measure. However it's implied that there were larger bombings in 1982 and that they were larger than the current ones. The following timeline would match the meaning of the sentence.

YEAR:--------------------------1977--------1982------------------1997-----------------------PRESENT
BOMBS DROPPED____ 100 tons___ 80 tons _______ 30 tons_____________ 50 tons

As would:

YEAR:--------------------------1977--------1982------------------1997-----------------------PRESENT
BOMBS DROPPED_____ 0 tons____ 0 tons _______ 30 tons_____________ 50 tons

The sentence "implies" that the 1982 bombings were larger, but that is not "technically" required.

"US trade deficit largest since President George W. Bush"

The following timeline would match the meaning of the sentence.

YEAR: ------------1999------------BUSH ERA---------------2012-------------------------NOW
DEFICIT: ____$900bn_______$700bn_________$300bn____________$600bn

as would:

YEAR: ------------1999------------BUSH ERA---------------2012-------------------------NOW
DEFICIT: ____$900bn_______$100bn_________$300bn____________$600bn

"X is the biggest since Y", is Y the high water mark?

No, not necessarily. Both sentences "imply" that Y is the high water mark, but that's not strictly necessary.

There's a point here that's really important that I hadn't consciously noticed before. This can be a great form of rhetoric to mislead people while not lying. I'll give you an example.

Let's just say we're talking carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, and we say that CO2 concentration is the highest it's been since 1980. All of the following timelines would match that statement:

YEAR: ------------------------1970-------------1980-------------2000---------------NOW
CONCENTRATION(PPM): 200________ 400 _______ 100 __________ 200

YEAR: ------------------------1970-------------1980-------------2000---------------NOW
CONCENTRATION(PPM): 200________ 50 ________ 100 __________ 300

YEAR: ------------------------1970-------------1980-------------2000---------------NOW
CONCENTRATION(PPM): no_data ____ no_data ____ no_data ________ 200

As I said, generally speaking it means that 1980 is high point. But it doesn't have to mean that, which is why you have to be careful when hearing something like this. Also according to the dictionary definition I gave above it can be either inclusive of 1980 or exclusive. Strictly speaking this form of expression is saying nothing other than you've started the recording at an arbitrary point in time.

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  • Your first example would also work if the figure for 1982 was 50 tons. While the second example works, I'm not sure anyone would use the phrase in that case (maybe "biggest ever" would be more appropriate).
    – user184130
    Jul 25, 2018 at 10:16
  • @JamesRandom You may be right, although that depends whether "since" is used to mark the end of the first time point or is inclusive of it. If it is inclusive, then 50 tonnes is not higher than 50 tonnes and it would be a false statement. If it's commencing from AFTER that period, then yes... you're right. As I mentioned, I quickly learned there are more subtleties to this use than I first realised.
    – Zebrafish
    Jul 25, 2018 at 10:33
  • It seems to me that, in this context, "largest since" can also be inclusive (ie "as large as or greater than").
    – user184130
    Jul 25, 2018 at 11:17
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The standard dictionary entry provides a bland description:

since conjunction, adverb, & preposition 1 In the intervening period between (the time mentioned) and the time under consideration, typically the present. ‘the worst property slump since the war’ - ODO

In common usage, the referenced event isn't necessarily 'grander' than the current event, nor is it necessarily a 'high water mark'. The implication is simply that the referenced event is significant in a similar sense, qualitatively.

Let's consider your examples.

  • "Israeli air strikes against Syria 'biggest since 1982'"

The implication here is that the 1982 event was a significant strike by Israel against Syria, as the following confirms (emphasis, mine):

The 1982 Lebanon War ... began on 6 June 1982 .... The military operation was launched after gunmen from Abu Nidal's organization attempted to assassinate Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom. ... After attacking the PLO – as well as Syrian, leftist, and Muslim Lebanese forces – the Israeli military, in cooperation with the Maronite allies and the self-proclaimed Free Lebanon State, occupied southern Lebanon, eventually surrounding the PLO and elements of the Syrian Army. - wikipedia

  • "US trade deficit largest since President George W. Bush"

The implication here is that the trade deficit under President George W. Bush was significant. He was the US president from 2001 to 2009. The following diagram from wikipedia illustrates the significance of the trade deficit during that period:

enter image description here

(Image attribution: By Farcaster, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11778117)

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