• Conundrum – When Does ‘Late’ Mean ‘Early’?

Talking about the dead is fraught with difficulties, dressed up in all sorts of niceties.  We seem to have gone past phrases like ‘the dear departed’, but we still cling to euphemisms whenever possible (dead parrot, anyone?).  But ‘the late’ sticks around.  Why?  To remind us of a recent death, in case we’d forgotten?  Or in case we hadn’t realised that he or she had ‘left us’ in the first place?

I was set yesterday to musing (well, frankly, fuming) on the general idiocy of ‘the late’.  It seems to have no boundaries or rationale.  In its most vacuous incarnation it has the urge to alliterate – ‘the late, great’.  Aaagh.  Taking purely musical examples, I can just about understand why the singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006, aged 52), on the left, is still referred to on the radio as ‘the late’.  It’s harder to comprehend why presenters feel it necessary, as they still sometimes do, to talk of another soprano, Arleen Auger (right), as ‘the late’.  She died 18 years ago (1939-93, aged 53).

What took the biscuit for me was listening yesterday morning to the first edition of BBC Radio 3’s new morning programme Essential Classics.  Rob Cowan, whom I like and respect as a presenter, referred to the early-music pioneer, David Munrow, as ‘the late’.  Well, honestly.  That’s ridiculous.  He died 35 – yes, 35 – years ago (1942-76, aged 34).  What can ‘the late’ possibly signify?

It seems to me that there’s a prolonged whiff of undue sentimentality, bordering on mawkishness.  The past tense surely suffices and nothing else.  Benjamin Britten (1913-76, aged 63), who died in the same year as Munrow, lost the label long ago.  I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘the late Witold Lutosławski’ (1913-94, aged 81) – and he died less than a year after Arleen Auger.  I wouldn’t even use it when speaking about Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010, aged 76), who died ten months ago yesterday.

It’s noticeable that all three of these ‘late’ musicians were performers, not composers, and all died ‘before their time’ (two of cancer, one by suicide).  Has ‘late’ therefore come to mean ‘too early’?  I suspect so, but did people in 1863 still refer to Schubert (1797-1828, aged 31) as ‘the late’?  Or talk likewise, in 1915, about Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80, aged 44)?  I hope that devotees of Maria Callas (1923-77, aged 53) no longer apply it to their ‘dear departed’.  Somehow I fear that they do.

Should there be a statute of limitations?  Ten years?  Five years?  Six months?

Or why don’t we just have done with it and abolish it altogether?  Better never than ‘late’.

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