12 One-Word Famous Last Words

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It is nice to think that one’s final moments will involve passing on a vital message, expressing love, or delighting family and friends with a witty quip. Indeed, some people manage to convey a great deal of meaning through just one word. In the case of the 12 famous people below, each one went to their grave after gifting us with a very pithy exit line.

1. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

“Useless!” – John Wilkes Booth (1838–65)

After assassinating President Lincoln on the night of April 14 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D. C., John Wilkes Booth fled on horseback, despite suffering a broken leg which he sustained when jumping from the presidential box to the stage. By April 26, Booth had made it to Virginia and was holed up in a barn when, in the middle of the night, agents turned up to arrest him. Since Booth refused to leave the barn, the New York Cavalry set a fire and Booth was forced out, which is when he was shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. Booth was immediately paralyzed, and so was laid upon the porch, where he slowly died. In his last moments he requested that his hands be raised up so he could look at them, and he uttered his final, miserable word.

2. ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING

“Beautiful.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (pictured above) was a Romantic poet whose best works were those inspired by her love for her husband, the poet Robert Browning. Elizabeth had always suffered from poor health, and a number of personal tragedies had caused her to live as a recluse. However, in 1844, her poetry caught the attention of Robert Browning and they began exchanging letters. Over the course of 574 letters in 20 months, the pair fell in love and eloped to marry. They settled in Florence, where Elizabeth produced some of her best poetry, gaining significant critical success. By 1861 Elizabeth’s already-fragile health was failing, and she was said to have died in her husband’s arms. Her final words were in response to the question "How are you feeling?"

3. PAUL CEZANNE

“Pontier.” – Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

Paul Cézanne is now regarded as one of the foremost artists of the French Post-Impressionist movement, and yet like many artists, he was largely unrecognized in his lifetime. Toward the end of his life Cézanne returned to his roots in Aix-en-Provence, continuing to paint and starting to gain some modest recognition for his talents. However, such was his melancholy nature that he still harbored resentment over some negative reactions to his works earlier in his life. In 1906, while painting outside, Cézanne was caught in a rainstorm and developed pneumonia, which became fatal. His final word was repeated over and over: It was the name of Auguste-Henri Pontier, director of the Musée Granet, which in 1896 had refused an offer of 100 canvases by the artist, a slight which still clearly haunted Cézanne in his final moments.

4. ULYSSES S. GRANT

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“Water.” – Ulysses S. Grant (1822–85)

Eighteenth U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant served from 1869–77. Prior to his presidency Grant had commanded Union forces to victory over the Confederate forces during the Civil War and as such was seen as a hero. His presidency, however, was not a great success. After his retirement from the White House Grant unwisely invested in a financial company, which went bankrupt, leaving him with large debts. Diagnosed with throat cancer, Grant began writing a memoir in an effort to provide for his family. Grant dictated the words to a stenographer, and as his health deteriorated and his voice failed, the stenographer was forced to sit ever closer to Grant’s bed to catch his whispered words. The last page of the memoir was completed just days before Grant’s death and it went on to be a great commercial success.

5. JOSEPH HENRY GREEN

“Stopped.” – Joseph Henry Green (1791–1863)

Dr. Joseph Henry Green was an eminent surgeon and anatomist who became great friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. On his death, Coleridge left Green as his literary executor, tasked with dispersing Coleridge’s literary estate for the benefit of his friends and family. However, Green was a doctor to the last, and as he lay dying, he pointed at his heart and said "congestion," before taking hold of his own wrist and feeling for his pulse, his last words indicating that his heart had ceased to beat.

6. THOMAS FANTET de LAGNY

“144.” – Thomas Fantet de Lagny (1660–1734)

Thomas Fantet de Lagny was a French mathematician who is best known for his contribution to computational mathematics—calculating π to 120 places. As de Lagny lay dying, his friends gathered round him. At one point, de Lagny had not moved for some time, and his companions feared he may have already died. Knowing de Lagny’s passion for mathematics, one friend decided to test his theory and asked de Lagny what the square of 12 was. With his last breath de Lagny shot back the answer.

7. MARTIN LUTHER

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“Yes.” – Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Martin Luther was a German theologian who kick-started the Protestant reformation when he nailed his list of complaints about the Catholic Church’s abuses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Throughout his life he was a controversial figure, challenging the accepted practices of the church and translating the Bible into German so that ordinary people might read it themselves. Although in his lifetime his ideas gained support across Germany and into Europe, he was still seen as a radical (indeed he was excommunicated by Pope Leo in 1521). On his deathbed, he was asked if he continued to stand by his doctrines, to which Luther gave an emphatic reply.

8.  GUSTAV MAHLER

“Mozart!” – Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)

Austrian composer and conductor Gustav Mahler lived a tragic life—he lost a brother to suicide, his daughter died aged four, and his wife became an alcoholic and had an affair. Despite these terrible blows, Mahler continued to make music, but his genius was not truly recognized until many years after his death. Mahler, who was already suffering from a bad heart, fell ill with blood poisoning while conducting for the New York Philharmonic, and returned to Vienna, traveling on a stretcher and drifting in and out of consciousness. Mahler died leaving his final symphony unfinished, with the name of one of his idols on his lips.

9. RAPHAEL

“Happy.” – Raphael (1483–1520)

One of the great High Renaissance artists, Raphael’s influence is far-ranging. Some of Raphael’s most famous works are his series of Madonnas, influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci, and his many frescoes in the Vatican. Unlike many artists in this list, Raphael gained much respect and recognition in his lifetime, so perhaps it is not surprising that when he died suddenly at the age of 37, his final word expressed joy.

10. RUPERT BROOKE

“Hello!” – Rupert Brooke (1887–1915)

Rupert Brooke, who was once part of the famed Bloomsbury set, is best known for his powerful war poetry, written after he had fought in Belgium in the early days of World War I. Brooke’s poems gained some positive attention and he was offered the opportunity to return to Britain and serve away from the battlefield, but he refused. In April 1915 Brooke sailed with his unit to Greece in preparation for the invasion of Gallipoli, but unfortunately he contracted serious blood poisoning from an insect bite. Brooke was transferred to a hospital ship off Skyros and his final words, said on April 23, 1915, were in greeting to a visitor.

11. QUEEN VICTORIA

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“Bertie.” – Queen Victoria (1819–1901)

Queen Victoria came to the British throne just after her 18th birthday, on the death of her uncle, King William IV, who had no legitimate children. She oversaw a huge empire, encompassing large parts of Africa, India, and Australia, ruling over one quarter of the world’s population. Victoria had a very happy marriage to Prince Albert and together they had nine children, however, she long refused to cede any power to her heir, Prince Edward (who was known as Bertie). In her last moments she was surrounded by her family, including her grandson the German Kaiser, but it was to her son, the future King Edward VII, that she addressed her last word.

12. JOSEPH WRIGHT

“Dictionary.” – Joseph Wright (1855–1930)

English linguist Joseph Wright had a humble beginning. Coming from a poor family, he was forced to work from a very young age. Wright took his first job age six, leading a donkey laden with tools from the smithy to the quarry and back again. Wright worked throughout his childhood, but also managed to secure a free education, and with his sharp intellect, eventually became a professor at Oxford University. Wright’s passion was languages, and so for many years he toiled to create the English Dialect Dictionary, preserving the many regional strands of the English language. The work was finally published starting in 1896. His thoughts were seemingly of his great work up until the very end. 

Adapted from Famous Last Words: An Anthology, edited by Claire Cock-Starkey and published by Bodleian Library on July 15, 2016.

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

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karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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12 Old-Fashioned Insults We Should Bring Back

mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images
mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images

With the help of social media, slang words and phrases can gain momentum around the globe in what feels like mere minutes. But trendy terms were making splashes long before YouTubers were stanning guyliner-wearing pop stars who slay all day and woke Gen Z-ers were tweeting their hot takes about fake news, mansplaining, and more.

In a new study, digital subscription service Readly analyzed data from its magazine archives to identify some popular terms from years past and present and pinpoint exactly when they stopped appearing in print. Among more positive terms like crinkum-crankum (“elaborate decoration or detail”) and sweetmeat (“item of confectionery or sweet food”) lies a treasure trove of delicious insults that have all but disappeared—and could definitely add some color to your future squabbles.

View Readly’s full timeline of terms here, and read on to find out which insults were our favorites.

1. Loathly

This alternate form of loathsome, meaning “repulsive,” had an impressive run as an insult for nearly 900 centuries, starting in 1099 and not falling out of public favor until 1945.

2. Purblind

According to the Merriam-Webster entry, purblind originally meant “blind” during the 1400s, and later became a way to indicate shortsightedness or lack of insight.

3. Poltroon

The next time you encounter an “utter coward,” you can call them a poltroon. They’re probably too much of a poltroon to ask you what poltroon means.

4. Slugabed

Though this term for “a person who stays in bed late” hasn’t been used much since the early 20th century, it’s the perfect insult for your roommate who perpetually hits the snooze button.

5. Mooncalf

This obscure term for a foolish person also once meant a "fickle, unstable person," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

6. Fainéant

Fainéant derives from fait-nient, French for “doing nothing.” Its tenure as a popular insult for “an idle or ineffective person” lasted from 1619 to 1670, but the fainéants themselves didn’t disappear with the term—there’s one in practically every group project.

7. Otiose

If you want to pack an extra punch when you accuse someone of being a fainéant, you could also call them otiose, meaning “lazy” or “slothful.”

8. Scaramouch

In Italy’s commedia dell’arte—a type of theatre production with ensemble casts, improvisation, and masks—Scaramouch was a stock character easily identified by his boastful-yet-cowardly manner. Much like scrooge is now synonymous with miser, the word scaramouch was used from the 1600s through the 1800s to describe any boastful coward. Wondering why the obsolete expression sounds so familiar? The band Queen borrowed it for their operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though scaramouches aren’t necessarily known for doing the fandango.

9. Quidnunc

From the Latin phrase quid nunc, or “What now?”, a quidnunc is an “inquisitive, bossy person” who’s constantly sniffing around for the next juicy morsel of gossip. Usage dropped off in the early 20th century, but you can always bring it back for that friend who unabashedly reads your text messages over your shoulder.

10. Sciolist

A sciolist is someone “who pretends to be knowledgeable.” Though they might fool a mooncalf or two, any expert would see through their facade.

11. and 12. Rapscallion and Scapegrace

Rapscallion and scapegrace are both wonderful ways to offend a mischievous person—if such a person would even be offended—that overlapped in popularity between the 1700s and the 1900s. While scapegrace refers to an incorrigible character who literally escaped God’s grace, rapscallion is an embellished version of the identically defined (but rather less fun to say) word rascal.

[h/t Readly]

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