There was the following sentence in Maureen Dowd’s column in New York Times (September 1):

We all know Republicans prefer riches-to-riches sagas, and rounding up immigrants, if the parasitic scofflaws aren’t sensitive enough to self-deport. That’s why my heart swells to think of the herculean effort the G.O.P. put into pretending its heart bleeds. Even if it’s been bleeding for only five days. Better never than late.

I can easily understand the meaning of ‘Better late than never,’ and I can easily find the definition of this phrase on online dictionaries.

For instance Cambridge Online Dictionary defines it as a saying ‘that is said when you think that it is better for someone or something to be late than never to arrive or to happen.’

I understand "Better never than late" is the antonym to "Better late than never," meaning it’s better not to be done (or non-existent) from the beginning, But I can’t find the entry of ‘Better never than late’ in any online dictionaries I’ve checked. Is this phrase as popular as ‘Better late than never’ as a proverb?

In what case can I use ‘Better never than late’ for an example other than G.O.P Presidential tickets’ compassionate mention on Hispanic immigrants in G.O.P. Convention?

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    When else can you use it? Any time you feel like something would have been better left undone than done late. One example might be doing something that dredges up hard feelings – like, an apology, for example: "I'm sorry that I held that grudge against you for so long" – perhaps that would be better left unsaid, so the apology could be delivered better never than late. Most of the time, though, people are gracious, and would rather receive things later than never, which is why the phrase is normally reversed.
    – J.R.
    Sep 9 '12 at 8:24
  • @J.R.: I think you're jumping to conclusions. There must be countless contexts where if something doesn't arrive/happen at the expected time, you've no use for it arriving late. Often, it would be less of a problem if it never arrived, if the only other alternative was that it would arrive late. Sep 9 '12 at 21:13
  • @JR. How about this case. I’ve got cancer. The doctor said it’s too late to do an operation, (or I’m too old to go under the knife). It’s better to leave it as it is. Can I apply ‘Better never than late’ to the case?
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Sep 10 '12 at 20:11
  • @Yoichi Oishi: I don't think so. It's not that common, but Dowd didn't make it up out of thin air. I'll post an answer, in case what I think gets too long for a comment. Sep 10 '12 at 23:16
  • ...as I hope my answer implies, it would be very harsh to say this to the doctor, because there's a strong implication that had your treatment been more timely you might have survived. It could be seen as "blame" for the medics, or at least evidence that you were very bitter about the hand that "fate" had dealt you. Sep 10 '12 at 23:34

You won't find this definition anywhere, because Maureen Dowd made it up. It's a play on words, a reversal of the familiar trope that is meant to be funny or to make you think. In this case it would seem to be rather sardonic, intended to mock the Republicans' new-found "compassion."

That said, I'm a bit puzzled myself because turning that particular trope around isn't exactly a deft attempt at humor. I think she means that it would be better not to have faked compassion at all than to come on it in this way at this time. But it is an awkward effort. I don't know Maureen Dowd's other writing, but after reading the entire article I believe she may be concerned more with slamming her target as hard as she can than with making people laugh.

Oh, well — not everyone can be Jon Stewart.

Further Reading

The inversion of a trope exhibited here is a familiar pattern known as a transpositional pun. Check the link for some other examples. Here's what the Wikipedia article says about their effectiveness:

[T]ranspositional puns are considered among the most difficult to create, and commonly the most challenging to comprehend, particularly for non-native speakers of the language in which they're given (most commonly English).

No wonder Oishi-san had trouble with this one. I myself am still having trouble with it. Unless all parts make complete sense when reversed, the inversion fails. For contrast, here's one (from the linked article) that does work:

Hangovers: the wrath of grapes. [Inversion of "the grapes of wrath," a line from Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" that Steinbeck used as the title of what was arguably his greatest novel.]

  • 1
    Just about, except that Dowd didn't make it up. Sep 9 '12 at 3:09
  • 3
    Well, just because others have used it before, doesn't mean she didn't make it up. Sep 9 '12 at 5:24
  • 1
    I think it’s a matter of scale. When I looked NGram chart, there is certainly a ‘trace’ of the intermittent uses of ‘Better never than late,’ but it’s almost non-existent as compared with the currency of “Better late than never.”
    – Yoichi Oishi
    Sep 9 '12 at 6:33
  • 1
    I think what the NGram shows is that at various points in history different writers pulled "the old switcheroo" and inverted the trope themselves. That this usage happened so seldom probably shows that each case was probably an invention that the writer thought to be a clever play on words. That same rarity probably proves them wrong about its cleverness. So it is entirely possible, even likely, that Dowd did make it up for herself. I think the only inference you can legitimately draw, @SevenSidedDie, is that it wasn't original with her, which claim I did not make.
    – Robusto
    Sep 9 '12 at 13:02
  • That's a fair point, Robusto, and a reasonable interpretation of the graph. I'll leave the comment for the sake of the link, and upvote yours to balance out my presumption. :) Sep 9 '12 at 15:13

"Better never than late" apparently occurs 1730 times in Google Books, so it's not exactly a "coinage" by Dowd.

It's a fairly "easy-to-think-of" variation on the well-established maxim "better late than never" (that's 140,000 instances), and it only takes a little more thought to see what it must mean. Here's a pithy summary...

Some people are too late for everything but ruin; when a nobleman apologized to George III. for being late, and said, "better late than never," the king replied, "No, I say, better never than late."

"Better late than never" is not half so good a maxim as "Better never late".

In short, you'd only use it when you want to emphasise how bad "late" is - either because you're bitterly attacking someone for already being late, or you're warning them not to be late, because timeliness is of the utmost importance in the current context.

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