As some of you may know, my father died recently after a relatively short battle with cancer. He was 87, so he had a good innings, and in many ways, he had the death he wanted: he died in his own home, surrounded by his family. Shortly before he died, we spent a long and very emotional day talking, and just before he fell asleep, he suddenly said to me “If anyone asks what my last words were, tell them I didn’t have any famous last words!” This was one of many dark jokes he cracked during his final days and weeks. In fact, as far as any of any of us can remember, his actual last words were said in response to one of the carers who came in and helped look after him during that last week. Seeing all the paintings around the house, she asked who’d done them. My dad confirmed that they were all his, at which point the carer asked who his favourite artist was. Without missing a beat, my dad replied “I am, of course!”
We cling on to the idea of famous last words in the hope that at the moment of dying, people are somehow able to impart some kind of wisdom that will help us make sense of our own mortality – of the fact that all our lives will end in death. Or maybe we hope that someone’s last words will somehow summarise and encapsulate their essence, which explains why we love to learn things like the fact that shortly before he died, the philosopher Karl Marx said “Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough”!
However, as a phrase, famous last words is generally more often used as an ironic comment on what the speaker sees as an overconfident claim. It suggests that the speaker may later be proved wrong – possibly in an embarrassing way. For example:
A. We won’t miss the train. Mike’s never late.
B. Famous last words!
The implication here is that Mike may very well be late, and that we might very well not actually get to the station on time as a result! It’s a way of telling the person you’re speaking to not to tempt fate, not to push their luck too far. There’s a fear that if you speak too optimistically about the future, you may jinx things – bring bad luck to them. This may explain why football fans often use this phrase.
A: It’s only Huddersfield. They’re rubbish. We’ll thrash them. (= we’ll beat them by a large margin, say 5-0 or 6-1). You’ll see
B: Famous last words!
A tragi-comic example of both uses of the phrase coming together happened when the musician Terry Kath, a founding member of the rock band Chicago, started messing around with a gun at a party. When a friend told him to be careful with it, he replied “Don’t worry. It’s not even loaded.” – and then accidentally shot himself in the head with the one bullet the gun contained! Famous last words indeed!
- Do you know the famous last words of any famous people? Who? What are they supposed to have said?
- What does a good death mean for you? How easy do you think it is to have one?
- Why do you think people crack jokes about death and dying?
- Can you think of something you’ve said – or something someone has said to you – recently that you felt was famous last words?