12 One-Word Famous Last Words

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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

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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.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

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iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

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