The First Words of 11 Famous People

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There are plenty of stories about the last words of famous people, some true, many apocryphal. The last words of John Quincy Adams were “This is the last of Earth! I am content.” Oscar Wilde’s were “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” For Douglas Fairbanks Sr. it was “Never felt better.” Less well known are the first words of the famous. Since no one can predict how famous a baby might turn out to be, the first words of the famous are often left unrecorded. But that doesn’t mean they are always lost to history. Here are 11 famous people whose biographies report their first words.

1. George Orwell: “Beastly”

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When Eric Blair (later to take the pen name George Orwell) was around 18 months old, stuck in bed with a severe bout of bronchitis, he uttered his first word, “beastly.” According to Gordon Bowker in his book George Orwell, the tot's mother recorded the event in her diary. The word stayed with him, appearing in every book he wrote except for the one most infused with the idea of beastliness, Animal Farm

2. Picasso: “Piz”

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Picasso could draw before he could speak, and he first learned to ask for things by drawing pictures of them. His first word was “piz,” his baby pronunciation of lápiz, the Spanish word for “pencil.” He would say it in order to get his mother to give him a pencil, Arianna Huffington wrote in Picasso: Creator and Destroyer.

3. Bill Clinton: “Pappaw”

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Bill Clinton’s baby book records his first word as “Pappaw,” the name he used for his grandpa. His father died before he was born, and he lived with his mother and grandparents. According to biographer David Maraniss in First in His Class, the word was “his first political decision, the safest choice, for if Billy had babbled something resembling ‘Mama,’ his mother and grandmother might have argued over which one of them he meant.” 

4. E.E. Cummings: “Hurrah!”

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E.E. Cummings’s mother kept a detailed diary of the life of baby Estlin. His first word was “Hurrah!” which he shouted while joining in with the chorus of the Civil War song “Marching Through Georgia” as his father sang it to him. By his second birthday, according to Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno in his biography of the poet, he could sing the whole thing, along with other songs (though, as his mother notes, he would often “make up words”).

5. Neil Young: “Dombeen”

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Neil Young’s father Scott wrote a biography of his son called Neil and Me, where he reports that Neil’s first word was “dombeen.” It meant “pudding, celery, pablum, porridge, and numerous other things he would point at while saying, encouragingly, ‘dombeen.’” Neil was also “a very fat child, mostly because he ate everything he could reach.”

6. Julie Andrews: “Home”

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Julie Andrews’s memoir begins, “I am told the first comprehensible word I uttered as a child was ‘home.’” According to her parents, she said it as they were pulling up to their house in the car. It came out with a slight rising intonation, as if she was testing out the word. Her parents wanted to be sure she had really said it, so they drove around the block in order to approach the house again, and she repeated the performance. “The word has carried enormous resonance for me ever since.”

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Up”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mother kept a baby book for him, where she recorded that he spoke his first word, “up,” on July 6, 1897, according to Andrew Turnbull's biography of the writer. She also recorded some of his memorable sayings, including, “Mother, when I get to be a big boy can I have all the things I oughtn’t to have?”

8. Amelia Earhart: “Papa”

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According to Susan Wels in The Thrill of It, Amelia Earhart’s mother kept a baby book called “Queer Doings and Quaint Saying of Baby Earhart” in which she had inscribed a quote from John Ruskin: “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” Baby Amelia was “tall with a beautifully shaped head and hands,” and her first word was “Papa.” Though her father’s struggle with alcoholism caused a lot of difficulty in her early life, he supported her ambitions, and even arranged for her first airplane ride.

9. Steven Spielberg: “Why?”

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Steven Spielberg’s aunt Natalie claimed in an interview that his first word was “why?” In his biography of the director, Joseph McBride quotes Natalie as saying, “He’d see a shadow on the wall and want to know why it was there…I used to baby-sit for him, and I can tell you, he was something. You just had to answer every question, and then there would be more."

10. Martin Amis: “Bus”

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In his book Experience, Martin Amis says, “apart from infantile renderings of ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ and ‘Philip,’ ‘bus’ was the first word I ever uttered. And throughout my childhood in Swansea I had a helpless passion for the great blood-red double-deckers, and I would ride them, with no destination in mind, for hour after hour and day after day.”

11. Russell Brand: “Don’t do that.”

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Though Russell Brand is known for his unfettered hedonistic tendencies, his first words, “don’t do that,” were a request for a little restraint. Or maybe not. He asks in his memoir, My Booky Wook, “Why is that the first thing I said? What kind of infancy was I having that before I learned ‘mum,’ or ‘dad,’ I learned, ‘Could you stop? Whatever it is that’s going on, just pack it in…’ On reflection, it was probably because I’d just been told not to do something that I made this my debut proclamation, rather than because I had the pressing need to bring some unpleasant incident to a conclusion.” He adds, “more normal words like ‘bird,’ ‘clock’ and ‘mum’ did follow fairly soon after, and ‘tis good that I’ve got a mum who remembers all them things. In fact, my childhood can’t have been that bad if someone loved me enough to document my first words.”

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October 11, 2013 - 11:11am
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