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What Does "Better Late than Never" Mean?

Geoffrey Chaucer used a variation of the phrase "better late than never" in The Canterbury Tales.
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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 14 October 2014
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“Better late than never” is a proverb used to indicate that something is better having been done even if it is later than expected. The phrase is literal and can be used in a number of ways to indicate relief, sarcasm and to give consolation to others. It is related to a number of other phrases and proverbs such as “if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right.”

It is believed that the phrase “better late than never” is a direct translation of a Latin proverb. It was first recorded as “potiusque sero quam nunquam” by Titus Livy in his “History of Rome.” The phrase found its way into English later. How this happened is unknown. It could have been translated from Latin works or become part of everyday vernacular in Latin and passed on as languages changed.

Geoffrey Chaucer used a variation of the phrase in his “Canterbury Tales.” The phrase appears in the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” Both characters are absent from the prologue and join the merry band at a later date as they make their way to Canterbury. Both are portrayed as alchemists, and Chaucer’s distaste for both is clear to see.

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The phrase does not relate to their late arrival, but to what actions should be taken. The full line is: “Ye that it usen, I counsel ye it let, lest ye lose al; for bet than never is late; never to thrive, were too long a date.” Chaucer is basically saying that never is too long an amount of time for something to thrive, but to be late is not. His form of this phrase is written as “for bet than never is late.”

“Better late than never” can be used as both an excuse and a terse denunciation for tardiness. If a student arrives late at a lecture or hands an essay in late, the professor may utter such a phrase. The cheeky student may also make a stab at humor by using it.

Uses for the phrase vary depending on the situation and the person using it. It can be used as a means of apology or excuse by the late person. It can also be used as a sign of relief or sarcasm by the person receiving the late goods or left waiting. A third person, an observer, might offer the phrase as consolation.

The proverb is also related to “it’s never too late,” which is to say that it is never too late to stop something or to try something. To stop smoking later in life is “better late than never,” as is finding the time to explore new musical types, travel the world or get to grips with Woody Allen films. This does not mean such things are necessarily better later in life.

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