Meaning of the idiom “Better late than never”
“Better late than never” is a common, much-used, English idiom. It’s used when someone wants to welcome the fact that something has happened, even if it happened later than expected or planned for.
It is a very useful idiom to express a wide variety of situations. It is used to express relief that something has happened at all, after the optimum time; it can be used ironically, suggesting that the speaker is actually quite irritated with whatever or whoever it is that is late, and is thus a pointed comment on the lateness. If it’s used with a sarcastic tone, it could be insulting or rude, and is often used in professional situations such as someone being late for a meeting, in which case it could be particularly hurtful.
It’s a very well-known idiom so those using it can assume that the person they’re speaking to understands its implication.
Origin of “Better late than never”
“Better late than never” has a very old origin. The phrase is a direct translation of a Latin proverb. It first appeared as potiusque sero quam nunquam in Titus Livy’s “History of Rome.”
The phrase found its way into English later and was used for the first time in a written text by Geoffrey Chaucer in his poem, “Canterbury Tales,” appearing in the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” Neither the Canon nor his yeoman are with the group at the start of the pilgrimage and join the merry band at a later date as they make their way to Canterbury. They are both alchemists, and Chaucer’s distaste for both is evident.
The phrase is not so much about their late arrival, but about 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,” in modern English, better late than never.
Uses of the idiom “Better late than never”
This idiom is often used to say that it is better for someone or something to be late than never to arrive or happen at all.
“Tom, you finally handed your homework in. Well, better late than never”
It is also used to say that you are glad someone has done something, or to say that they should do something even though they are late.
“I’m sorry my gift came late, but better late than never, right?”
Perhaps, when some process is not working out as expected, but finally begins to work, the relief can be expressed as:
“Better late than never. I was really worried that this was going to fail.”
It’s used, perhaps, by a teacher reprimanding a latecomer, greeting her sarcastically with an appropriate tone, as a reprimand, and the suggestion not to do it again.
“Well, better late than never.”
The proverb is also related to “it’s never too late,” in 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 classic novels. This does not mean such things are necessarily better later in life.
“Better late than never” in the arts
Better Late Than Never: From Barrow Boy to Ballroom, autobiography by Len Goodman
Film and television
Better Late Than Never (1983 film), a film directed by Bryan Forbes
Better Late Than Never (TV series), 2015
Better Late Than Never, a Thomas & Friends Season 2 episode
Better Late Than Never (1922 film) starring Sid Smith (actor)
Better Late Than Never (Cold River Lady album), 1992
Better Late Than Never (The Slackers album), 1996
Better Late Than Never (Eddie and the Hot Rods album), 2004
Better Late Than Never (Trife Diesel album), 2009
Better Late Than Never (AndersonPonty Band album), 2015
Better Late Than Never, debut album of Rosie 1976
“Better Late Than Never”, single by The Nolans from Making Waves
“Better Late Than Never”, single by FM
“Better Late Than Never”, single by Tanya Tucker from Tanya Tucker singles discography
“Better Late Than Never”, single by Bobby Breen from Motown discography
Quotes about lateness
Modern Western culture is preoccupied with time – every aspect of life is regulated by time, Being on time or being timely is one of the most important things in the smooth running of modern life, and lateness is therefore a major issue. Here are some quotes about lateness from prominent figures:
- Better three hours too soon than a minute too late. William Shakespeare
- Everything comes at the right time, but if the right time is too late to be patient, go earlier before it becomes too late. Michael Bassey Johnson
- It is never too late to become reasonable and wise. Immanuel Kant
- It’s never too late – never too late to start over, never too late to be happy. Jane Fonda
- It’s never too late to do the right thing. Nicholas Sparks
- It is never too late to master your weaknesses. Jane Fonda
- It’s never too late. Don’t focus on what was taken away. Find something to replace it, and acknowledge the blessing you have. Drew Barrymore
- Maybe it’s not too late to learn how to love and forget how to hate. Ozzy Osbourne
- It’s never too late to get good at something. Guy Fieri
- It is never too late to be what you might have been George Eliot
- It’s too late for preparation when opportunity strikes. John Wooden
- Adventures make one late for supper. J. R. R. Tolkien
- We come too late to say anything which has not been said already. Jean De La Bruyere
- It’s always about timing. If it’s too soon, no one understands. If it’s too late, everyone’s forgotten. Anna Wintour
- It’s never too late to change your luck. Diplo
- It’s never too late to take your heart health seriously and make it a priority. Jennie Gart
- It is never too late or too early; you are never too young or too old. You can do what you can do. Israelmore Ayivor
- Tis not too late to-morrow to be brave John Armstrong
- It’s never too late to act on your dream. Bruce Wilkinson
- The joy late coming late departs. John L. Bates
- It is better to learn late than never. Publilius Syrus
- Better to start early than finish late. J.R. Rim
- Its never to late to get back on your feet though we wont live forever make sure you accomplish what you were put here for Abigail Adams
- It is never too late to start growing. Rick Warren
- And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is. Elizabeth Strout
- It’s never too late to start heading in the right direction. Seth Godin
- A late summer garden has a tranquility found no other time of the year. William F Longgood
- Everything comes too late for those who only wait. Elbert Hubbard
- Two late goals, both in the last twenty minutes. Jon Champion
- Tomorrow’s life is too late. Live today. Marcus Valerius Martial