How Do Americans Use the Phrase "Later"?
January 19, 2005 10:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm baffled by the American colloquial expression Later and its many usages. Can someone pin it down for me? [More inside.]

Sometimes it seems to mean merely "See you later"; like the standard French au revoir or even the Italian arriverderci, sort of an abbreviation of the old 50s "See you later, aligator"; other times it's clearly sarcastic, meaning anything from "go your way and I'll go mine" to the extreme "Oh, just piss off, will you?".

The ironic meanings lead me to suspect that the friendly interpretation is probably wrong, inasmuch as the brevity of the response (including here on MetaFilter, after a particularly lengthy goodbye from a certified pain in the neck) may indicate a couldn't-care-less attitude.

Or is it a simple procrastination expression, i.e. "Not now"? Any help would be much appreciated. Granted, it's a very minor issue, but it fascinates me as I'd like to be able to use it too...! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It means "peace out, bro".
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:53 AM on January 19, 2005

Oh, that's a real help, BuddhaInABucket! Although I appreciate the over-complexification which is a requirement of truth, you've just created a whole new sub-question, bro! ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:58 AM on January 19, 2005

I'd say you're exactly right in your first paragraph. It originated as a shortening of "See you later" and it can be delivered in a friendly fashion or not. I hear it used in a friendly fashion much more often than not.

In this context, it doesn't have to do with procrastination, though it could in response to, say, "When are you going to do the dishes?
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:58 AM on January 19, 2005

As with any expression, tonality, timing and context make the meaning.

For most cases where it is used in American culture, it is a lighthearted expression.
posted by jazzkat11 at 10:59 AM on January 19, 2005

It is a term usually used when two people are parting in person, on the telephone, or online.

Probably based on "I will see/hear/type with you later".

I find it to mean that the conversation is ending and that further exchange (usually online) would be fruitless as the other part has left.

I don't find it ever to be used in an antogonistic way, in fact I find it used more by friends that with strangers.
posted by Argyle at 11:00 AM on January 19, 2005

I think all the meanings you've given are there at one time or another, depending on context. I often say "later", or even "late" as meaning goodbye, but any time Americans have a chance to make a phrase sarcastic or insutling, we're gonna take it...
posted by InfidelZombie at 11:02 AM on January 19, 2005

No, "later" is usually a brief but genial parting phrase. It's how I usually sign off with friends after talking or emailing. The briefness of it is just a testament to, "hey, we're cool, we don't need a big long spiel to say goodbye." The usual response is also just, "Later."

It could sound a little dismissive if used with someone you're not really on familiar terms with, but I don't know anyone who intentionally uses it to sound dismissive. (That role is usually played by "whatever.")

Just saying "later" when you mean "Not now, but later" usually wouldn't be clear without some context, eg:
— Can you help me with a couple of questions right now?
— Later, I'm busy right now.

(Person 'B' just saying 'later' without any explanation would definitely be rude and dismissive here.)

BTW, Antimoon is a great forum for questions like this, so you don't have to use up your AskMe's.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:02 AM on January 19, 2005

I see "later" being used primarily in two contexts: First, as a shortened form of "see you later", the equivalent of "goodbye". Second, as a vague answer when someone is trying to pin you down (as in "When are you going to do the dishes?" "Later..." as stated above).

other times it's clearly sarcastic

Off hand, I can't think of any examples of this. I don't see all the shades of meaning in the expression that you perceive. Maybe it's all too intuitive for me, as a native speaker, to pick up on?
posted by Doohickie at 11:03 AM on January 19, 2005

It's definitely an idiomatic usage of American English, and highly dependent on context. I once said später (later) to my German friend and quickly earned a puzzled look. Bis später (until later) made the meaning clear.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:43 AM on January 19, 2005

later=see you later (friendly)
later=attitude, derisive, meaning "get lost" or "i'm out of here--this is weird/dumb/strange"
later=i'll do something later, not now
posted by amberglow at 11:52 AM on January 19, 2005

"Later" is just short for "See you later." That someone could say it sarcastically makes no difference whatsoever. Someone could just as easily say, "Yeah, goodbye" sarcastically. That doesn't change the original meaning.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:52 AM on January 19, 2005

Thank you ever so much for setting me straight.

As for the sarcastic use, I've seen it twice used on MeFi to mean, at the very least, "Yeah, yeah, yeah" - in both instances after a particularly boring justification for leaving a prolonged argument.

I now realize it could just be a friendly way of saying "You're being over-emotional right now so it's not worth responding" and "later" could just mean "When you've gathered your senses, we'll be able to talk again".

Many thanks!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:59 AM on January 19, 2005

"Later" as a goodbye is kind of adolescent, or at least it was initially. Used angrily, it is to say "this is pointless" with a faint subtext of "and it's also kids' stuff." At least that's how I see it.
posted by furiousthought at 12:33 PM on January 19, 2005

I believe "later" in the dismissive sense is short for "later for you," meaning "good riddence". See Guitar Slim's "Later for You, Baby".
posted by timeistight at 1:00 PM on January 19, 2005

I think the sarcastic/angry use derives from a brief-lived '90s teen idiom "later for you", meaning, basically, "fuck off".
posted by nicwolff at 1:00 PM on January 19, 2005

Snap! Anyway, "later for you" may have been (white) teen slang in the '90s, but, as the Guitar Slim reference shows, it's been african-american slang for at least fifty years.
posted by timeistight at 1:27 PM on January 19, 2005

Miguel, I don't think "later" by itself can be made to carry quite the connotation you suggest in your last interpretation there. Though as an aside, there's a jocular and very outdated parting "Later when you're straighter", which implies, not at all seriously, that the person you're talking too is too drunk or stoned to be dealt with usefully right now. Use only if you're prepared to get a bemused "I can't believe you really said that" look.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:42 PM on January 19, 2005

Like, dude ...
(You know ...)
posted by Shane at 2:12 PM on January 19, 2005

as in "later cudies"
posted by specialk420 at 2:13 PM on January 19, 2005

I think because the expression is so informal, it's easier to use rudely. English has levels of politeness just like other languages, although maybe not as strict-- from "Would you like a drink?" to "Do you want a drink?" to "Want a drink?" to just "Drink?" while shoving a bottle in the person's face. You could use any of them sarcastically, but maybe it makes more sense to use the most informal expression and be sarcastic if you're trying to be rude.
posted by mcguirk at 2:26 PM on January 19, 2005

Here around So Cal it's a pretty common way to say "see you later" among young people, esp. males, and has been since I can remember. It's been largely supplanted, however, by just the abbreviated form "late" (or "l8" when written). Don't hear it much used in a derogatory sense.
posted by shoos at 3:57 PM on January 19, 2005

In the book "Girl Interrupted," which is set in the 50s? 60s? (I don't have it in front of me, sorry), there's a character who likes to brag about her "tracks" (needle marks in the arm from drug use). She meets another girl who has fewer tracks than she has and says something like:

You want to see tracks? I'll show you tracks. Later for your tracks.
posted by grumblebee at 5:09 PM on January 19, 2005

It's commonplace in the UK to now say "laters" by teens (and their tragically hip parents in some cases). This is probably an outgrowth from US slang, tho' with our own burgeoning celebrity/reality/soap opera culture dominating everything, it could be indigenous.

It seems to be a 'cheerio', in modern form.
posted by dash_slot- at 5:23 PM on January 19, 2005

Miguel: You should also know that 'later' is sometimes, in a relatively recent development, abbreviated to 'late,' which is then sometimes expanded to 'lates.'
posted by bingo at 7:37 PM on January 19, 2005

And as usual, reading sarcasm into it on the interweb can be a mistake. Subtle sarcasm of any kind is always misinterpreted by someone. Oh, OK, misinterpreted by me.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:24 PM on January 19, 2005

dash_slot: "laters" makes me want to scream.
furiousthought: I don't really consider it to be adolescent- perhaps it originated that way, but I'm in my early twenties now and say "later" to the near-complete exclusion of "bye". "Bye" is only appropriate to say when somebody is going away and you aren't going to see them for an uncustomary period of time- whether that be your roommate for 2 days, or your uncle for a month. If I'm speaking english to my parents instead of farsi, sometimes I'll be proper and say "see you guys later."
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 8:59 PM on January 19, 2005

"Bye" is only appropriate to say when somebody is going away and you aren't going to see them for an uncustomary period of time- whether that be your roommate for 2 days, or your uncle for a month.

huh? ... i don't know anyone who uses "bye" or "goodbye" in that sense exclusively ... it can easily mean, "see you in a couple of hours", especially on the phone
posted by pyramid termite at 7:09 AM on January 20, 2005

pyramid termite: not so much for me- I even say 'later' when I'm hanging up the phone with my friends.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:01 PM on January 21, 2005

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