“Latter,” not “Ladder”

By Maeve Maddox

Andrew Chatwin asks:

Latter and Ladder, how are they different?

One difference is that of pronunciation:

latter [lăt’ər]
ladder[lăd’ər]

In ordinary speech, however, the difference between the t and d sounds is often difficult to discern.

Apparently other speakers are puzzled by the word latter. Here’s a question asked and answered at Yahoo Answers:

Why do people use the phrase “I choose the ladder” after comparing two decisions or choices?

And here’s the “best answer as chosen by voters”:

Oh most people who say that are social climbers and they want to get to the top.

In the expression that refers to making a choice between two options, the word is latter, not ladder. The first option is called the former:

Father gave us our choice of the blue Mustang or the red Corvette. I chose the former and Charlie chose the latter.

The word latter comes from the comparative form of Old English laet: laetra, and meant “slower.” It took on the meaning of “second of two” in the 1550s. Modern later came, well, later. (It also comes from OE laet.)

The most usual use of latter is to refer to the second of two mentioned things:

He was offered the part of either Othello or Iago: he chose the latter.

Mormons call their church “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” because they see themselves as later followers of Jesus Christ; the “former day saints” were the first century Christians.

“The latter days” is an eschatological phrase used by some Christian sects to refer to the days preceding the second coming of Christ.

One can also refer to a person’s “latter years,” i.e., old age. Here are some examples of latter used to mean “the later part of life”:

Men living longer but spend latter years sick

Staying in Shape in Your Latter Years

Ladder, as a noun, usually means a portable device with rungs or steps that enables one to climb up or down. The word ladder can also refer to a tear or a breach in fabric that resembles a ladder, having straight sides and crosspieces:

Once the critical bond at the crack tip has broken, the peak stress concentration is transferred to the next bond, and so on, like a ladder in a silk stocking.

Figuratively, ladder is used to refer to the steps of getting ahead socially or professionally:

A steady rise up the legal ladder took him into the commercial law field …

He sits, unhappy and proud, on the ladder of social promotion having lost the hold on one type of life, but failing to reach the one to which he aspires.

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5 Responses to ““Latter,” not “Ladder””

  • Julie

    It is distressing enough that someone would ask the question, “Why do people use the phrase ‘I choose the ladder” after comparing two decisions or choices?” But to have someone answer, “Oh most people who say that are social climbers and they want to get to the top.” … Oy vey! May God have mercy on us all!

  • Jon

    I’m hoping that that answer was a joke.

    Or failing that, that the question was a joke.

    Nothing is certain in this increasingly post-literate society of ours though…

    It seems to be common for phrases such as this to appear on the internet – people have heard, or even used, the phrases in speech but never seen it written down. Earlier articles and discussions on this very site bear testament to that.

    I choose the ladder” would seem to be the confused question of someone who has misheard but never seen the phrase. At least they asked, rather than just jumping in with both feet and using it with wild abandon.

    This kind of drift is nothing new…

    Look at the long history of “brand new” (16th century) and the newer form “bran new” (17th century)…

    Give it another century and “choosing the ladder” may co-exist alongside “choosing the latter“…

  • Emma

    Just a note: it is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. Hyphenated with a lower-case “d”. I realize that this is is a small thing, but that’s what is correct.

    I already knew how to use the word “latter”, but I think it’s interesting to see how it formed over time. Also, I am with Jon in hoping that the answer to the Yahoo Answers question was a joke. But then, if it was the “best answer as chosen by voters”, SOMEBODY voted for it. Did they think it was a joke, or did they actually believe the answer?

  • Jon

    If the small things go uncorrected, errors build on errors, the mondegreen slowly takes over, and we end up with a small group of people fervently awaiting Ladder Day…

  • Laureen

    Apparently other speakers are puzzled by the word latter. Here’s a question asked and answered at Yahoo Answers:

    “Why do people use the phrase “I choose the ladder” after comparing two decisions or choices?

    And here’s the “best answer as chosen by voters”:

    Oh most people who say that are social climbers and they want to get to the top”

    Yahoo is the perfect barometer of stupidity in the US

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