12 One-Word Famous Last Words

Getty Images
Getty Images

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

Getty Images

“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

Getty Images

“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

Project Gutenberg via Wikimedia // Public domain

“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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

Game of Thrones Fans Have Been Mispronouncing Khaleesi

HBO
HBO

While Game of Thrones fans are busy poring over every still image and official trailer released for the show's final season in the hope of noticing some tiny detail that might hint at what's to come, David Peterson—the linguist who creates the series' fictional languages—dropped a huge piece of information: we've all been mispronouncing  Khaleesi.

While being interviewed for The Allusionist podcast, Peterson described the rampant mispronunciation as "a real thorn in my side." So just how should we be saying the Dothraki word?

"I wanted to make sure if something was spelled differently, it was pronounced differently," Peterson explained of his process of transforming the handful of Dothraki words George R.R. Martin had created into a full language. "That worked pretty well for everything except the word Khaleesi ... There's no way it should be pronounced 'ka-LEE-see' based on the spelling. So I had to decide, 'Am I going to respell this thing because I know how people are going to pronounce this, or am I going to honor that spelling and pronounce it differently?' I made the latter decision and I think it was the wrong decision."

(That said, in his book Living Language Dothraki, Peterson writes that "many Dothraki words have multiple pronunciation variants, often depending on whether the speaker is native or non-native. Khaleesi, for example, has three separate pronunciations: khal-eh-si, khal-ee-si, and kal-ee-si," which at a later point in the book spelled is "ka-lee-si.")

Given that Daenerys Targaryen has a mouthful of other titles at her disposal, we'll just call her the Mother of Dragons from now on.

Game of Thrones returns for its final season on April 14, 2019.

[h/t: Digital Spy]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER