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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2010 Klaus Bung

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Klaus Bung:
My late father

When you speak about a person who is dead, you often use expressions like "my late father", or "the late Iris Murdoch". We discuss this and other uses of "late" in this article and the difference between "late" and "too late". Examples of uneducated English, like "my Mom, My Dad, all Mums and Dads", the expression "to pay tribute to", William the Conquerer (known in France as William the Bastard), and the Irish expression "my sainted mother" are all explored in this article. Read more below.

2010-09-09: My late father

The father of British Prime Minister David Cameron died yesterday. This morning we heard in the news: "David Cameron paid tribute to his late father".

Dad or Father

Being an educated person, David Cameron spoke about his "father", which is correct, and not about "his Dad", as uneducated people and politicians (who want to please uneducated people) do.

In educated English, you DESCRIBE a person as your father, and you may ADDRESS him as "Father" (e.g. "Good morning, Father, how are you today?").

You can use an endearment (like Dad, Mum, Pop, Auntie, Gran) when speaking TO a person you love but not when speaking ABOUT a person you love.

Example: You can say to your mother: "Hello, Mum, thank you. I love you so much!" But when reporting to your best friend what you said to your mother this morning, an educated person says: "This morning I told my mother how much I loved her". That is the difference between talking TO and person and talking ABOUT a person.

The battle against uneducated English

Uneducated English is heard increasingly often these days and might, in a hundred years or so, sadly, become standard English. What was once uneducated Latin, or Latin slang, became a few hundred years later standard Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian.

Uneducated people in England, and especially bombastic politicians, sometimes say "at this moment in time" (22 keystrokes) when they mean "now" (3 keystrokes). "at this moment in time" comes up almost 3 million times in Google.

Something similar happened in French ages ago. English "today" (= to-day), a very simple word, is in French "aujourd'hui". This word is diabolically difficult for people learning French, but they have to learn. It cannot be simplified or shortened. It is the only way to say "today" in French. It is educated French, and nothing else will do.

But look more closely at the origins of "aujourd'hui" and its components.

au       jour   d'   hui

on the   day    of   today

The French word "aujourd'hui" is as bombastic as "at this moment in time" is in English. But no French person feels any more that it is bombastic. Only scholars will know about its components and origins. It has become educated standard French.

But the word is even more complex when we look at it more closely and look into its Latin origins.

"jour" comes from late Latin "diurnum" = Latin "dies" (same family as English "day" )

"hui" comes from Latin "hodie" (= today)

"hodie" itself is contracted from "hoc die" (on this day = today).

ho c d ie  = hoc die

ho   d ie  = hodie

hu     i   = hui

So Latin "hodie" says all that is required, and "hui" would have been sufficient in French (just like "now" in our English example) - three letters in each case would do).

Now in the French expression the word "dies/diurnum/day" occurs twice: "aujourd'hui" = "on the day of this day"

In the long run, the uneducated (necessarily the majority) always win, but it is the duty of the educated to slow down the process as best they can. There are various organisations in England devoted to this task, such as the Apostrophe Protection Society or the Plain English Campaign.

Examples of uneducated English

Here are some of the uneducated expressions which you should not imitate, however often you hear them:

  • "my mum":
    should be "my mother"
  • "my dad":
    should be "my father"
  • "my auntie":
    should be "my aunt"
  • "Will all mums and dads please come ..." (often said by Headteachers in Primary Schools, but it is uneducated English, no matter who says it).
    This should be: "Will all parents please come ..."

As I stated above, David Cameron paid tribute to his father, i.e. he said things in praise of him, what a good person he was, how caring, how intelligent, how kind-hearted, how tough.

So let me go to Google and see what David Cameron actually said. The BBC website reported:

"In a statement, Mr Cameron - who remained in France overnight - and his family said: 'Our dad was an amazing man - a real life enhancer. He never let the disability he was born with or the complications in later life get in the way of his incredible sense of fun and enjoyment'."

Alas, I was wrong when I said above that David Cameron was too educated to talk about his "Dad".

He did say "Dad". This does not make the expression any better. It is an attempt of the politicians to speak the language of the masses in order to increase their popularity.

It was the BBC which maintained the standards of educated English by talking about David Cameron's "father" and not about his "dad".

The contrast between popular and uneducated English and the English of educated people (WHICH GROUP WOULD ***YOU*** LIKE TO BELONG TO?!) becomes obvious on the same page, when we compare what David Cameron's statement (uneducated language) says and how the BBC reports that statement (reformulated in educated language).

Here is the evidence. (Click on the images to make them larger):

  • Cameron's statement: "Our dad was an amazing man"

David Cameron's statement

  • BBC headline: "David Cameron's family pay tribute to 'amazing' father"

BBC headline

Paying tribute

If you pay tribute to someone, especially a person who has died, or left an imporant office (= job), you are saying something good about that person.

But why does one say "***pay*** tribute"?

There was a time when it was almost the duty of kings to conquer other countries and the territories of neighbouring tribes and thus increase their territory and their power. Then the vanquished people (the losers) had to pay an annual tax to the conquerers (the winners). That tax was called "tribute". The losing king might remain king in his territory, but by paying tribute to the winning king he recognised formally and publicly that the winning king was higher in rank and more powerful than he.

If the weaker king wanted to assert his independence, he would refuse to pay tribute. The stronger king would then start war again to assert his authority. Classical stories of this kind can be found, for example, in Caesar's Gallic War and in the Indian epic Mahabharata, amongst many many others.

Guilleaume le Bâtard , William the Bastard

In English history, we have William the Conqueror (whose conquests were so significant, at least for England and France, that he has "the conquerer" as part of his name).

In France he is endearingly and officially called "Guillaume le Bâtard" (William the Bastard). This is not a term of abuse but simply a matter of fact.

In some languages, if you have a very good mate (man to man), you may slap him on the shoulder and say quite affectionately: "Hello, you old bastard, how are we today", or, instead of "bastard", "Hello, you old scoundrel" (or: "you old rascal") would have a similarly affectionate effect.

In England and France, the word "bastard" is not considered as offensive or "dirty" as in India or in Arabic countries. People saw no reason why they should not call a spade a spade, or a bastard a bastard (i.e. state the facts without making them sound prettier than they are).

When somebody calls me " bastard" in the street, I do not punch him in the face, and I do not say "Bastard yourself!", but I stay calm and show him my birth certificate, which I always carry with me, for that very purpose. Then I slap him on the shoulder, and we go to have a drink together.

The reason why Indians and Pakistanis have to be so touchy in this respect is that many of them do not have a birth certificate, most have two or three birthdays, and therefore they do not have the simple remedy which we westerners have. The only problem is, at least for me, that my birth certificate gets worn out from too frequent reading and exposure to sunlight, and about once every year I have to obtain an authorised copy. But I now have this laminated so that it last longer, even if I need it several times a day.

The arrival of bastards in this world is something that happens, even in the best families. In Shakespeare's "King Lear", Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester, causes a lot of trouble. For more examples from literature click here.

So now you know that "to pay tribute" has

  • a literal meaning, when a weaker country pays an annual tax to a stronger country and thereby keeps at least part of its independence
  • and a figurative meaning (= non-literal meaning), when a person formally says something good about another person, especially when he is grateful to that person.

Late and early

Now we ask why David Cameron's father is "late".

In basic English "late" is the opposite of "early".

  • I get up early in the morning, and I go to sleep late at night.
  • If the train is due to arrive at 12.05h but actually arrives at 12.10h, then the train is late; in fact the train is 5 minutes late.
  • When you are expected to meet someone at 11.00h, but arrive only at 11.05h, you apologise by saying: "I'm sorry to be late."
  • Even if you arrive 45 minutes or 2 hours late, you still say: "I am late" (and not, as Germans are tempted to say in English: "I am too late".) You should intensify your apology by saying: "I am TERRIBLY sorry for being so VERY late, I am sooooo sorry."

Too late

Now assume that someone asks you to take a parcel to the post office. The post office closes at 5.30 p.m. You arrive at 5.31 p.m. and find that the post office is closed. In that case, you have to explain to the person who gave you the parcel: "I arrived ***too*** late. The post office was closed when I arrived. I could not post the parcel for you."

You use "too late" when your lateness (even if it is only one minute) makes it impossible for you to do what you wanted to do or had to do.

"Too late" in other languages

This is different in German (and presumably some other languages). If a German is late (even by only 5 minutes), he will always say that he "kommt zu spät" (= comes too late = is too late). The implication is that what matters to the German is whether he has satisfied his obligation to be on time. If he offends against that obligation, he is "too late", even if the scheduled meeting can still take place.

I am mentioning this here because the German student of English is likely to say in English, wrongly, "I am sorry for being too late", when he should have said: "I am sorry for being late." The same applies to speakers of other languages which are similar to German in this respect. If you speak such a language, please email me. I would love to learn about it.

Late father and sainted mother

Let us return to David Cameron's late father. "Late" in such expressions means that the person is deceased ( = dead).

"deceased" is a technical term for a dead person. It is used as a noun and as an adjective, but rarely as a verb.

  • A police report or a newspaper report might say: "The deceased (= the dead person) was in his early thirties", i.e. he was 30-, 31, 32, 33, or 34 years old.
  • Or the report might say: "The deceased was in his late thirties", i.e. he was 36, 37, 38 or 39 years old."
  • Or: "He was in his mid-thirties, i.e. he was 34, 35, or 36."

The Irish, whose use of English reflects the fact that they tend to be profoundly religious, will often say, when speaking about people they love (but not in official reports): "My sainted mother", "my sainted aunt", which means that mother or aunt are dead and the person speaking is sure that they are with the saints in heaven because they have been so good on earth. Sometimes this may be a form of wishful thinking, i.e. you say it not because you are sure but because you hope that it will become true.

Yesterday I was listening to a gardening programme on the radio. A woman brought an ailing (= sick, sickly) plant to a gardening expert. "Can you tell me what is wrong with this plant?" she asked. The expert responded, in a slightly jocular tone: "This is not a plant, this is a late plant", i.e. a dead plant. This was meant as a joke. The joke was in the fact that the expert applied the word "late" to a plant. It would have been similarly funny to apply this word to a pet and say: "Our late cat used to catch all our mice." Only human beings deserve this word. It contains a certain amount of respect or affection.

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it