last man standing

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last man standing

Post by Tony Farg » Thu Sep 04, 2008 6:04 pm

I recently used this expression to describe the status of my local post office, which has not quite yet been closed down, although all the others in the area have been.
Does anyone know the origin of the phrase? I feel sure that it does not originate with the Bruce Willis film, because I think I've known it longer than that, yet googling it seems only to come up with the film.

Re: Last Man Standing

Post by trolley » Thu Sep 04, 2008 7:31 pm

The origin of the phrase sounds like a job for Ken. When I think of the last man standing, I think it's something more than the "sole survivor". To me, it has something of the "ultimate winner" around it. At he end of the day, when the dust has settled and the battle is over, the last man standing wins.

Re: last man standing

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Sep 05, 2008 3:58 am

Tony and John, I thought for sure that LAST MAN STANDING would show up in some slang, catch phrase, . . . dictionary, but I found not a mention, zilch, nada. So, here is what I was able to scrape together.

The following is my definition, which is in agreement with yours:

LAST MAN STANDING: The last surviving person in a competition, incident, event, battle of attrition, etc.; sole survivor, the only one left; the winner

In my view, the most likely possibility for the expression’s origin is that it is a shortening of LAST MAN LEFT STANDING which, beginning in 19th century, was used to refer to the winner of a competition/contest as, for example, a military cadet drill competition (1878 quote) or a spelling bee (1913 quote) or possibly even a brawl (no quote). It was also used in discussions of military battle and it is still used in this way today (1891, 2005, 2008 quote):
<1878 “These two prizes will be given to the LAST MAN LEFT STANDING among those who contest.”—Daily Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia), 2 August, page 4> [[military cadet drill contest]]

<1891 “And these were the Spartan daughters of Spartan fathers who never knew defeat in war so long as there was a LAST MAN LEFT STANDING on the field of battle.”— Manufacturer and Builder, Volume 23, Issue 2 page 30>

<1913 “. . . as Mr. Willis was the LAST MAN LEFT STANDING he was properly declared the winner.”—Indianapolis Star, 29 June, page 24> [[national spelling bee held in Washington, DC.]]

<2005 “. . . a war of attrition developed in the west where the opposing forces of Germany, France, and Britain, . . . ground each other down with rising levels of losses. In battles that were intended to be won by the LAST MAN LEFT STANDING, resources counted for almost everything.”—The Economics of World War I by Broadberry & Harrison, 2 August, page 3>

<2008 “‘He [[U.S. presidential candidate John McCain]] was the LAST MAN LEFT STANDING’ after the Florida primary, said Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican operative who is not working for any campaign this time.”—International Herald Tribune, 6 February>
The earliest example I could find where the exact phrase LAST MAN STANDING was used, where it looked as though it was actually a set phrase (and not just part of something else, e.g. the ‘last man standing in the line’) was from 1898. However, it sure wasn't used a heck of a lot, until later in the 20th century:
<1898 “Still it is the army that has the LAST MAN STANDING that usually wins the fight.”—New York Times, 9 August, page 5>

<1966 “However, in Ko Ha Ku competition for men, a wrestler from the North was the LAST MAN STANDING. In this competition, a contestant remains in action as long as he keeps winning.” —New York Times, 20 November, page S4>

<1976 “Becker retained all the errors of Adam’s painting by depicting Custer as long-haired, fighting with a sword, and the LAST MAN STANDING.”—The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1, January, page 29>

<1987 “He [[Judge Robert Bork]] had the misfortune to be the LAST MAN STANDING in the ‘Saturday night massacre,’ after Elliot Richardson and Bill Ruckelshaus resigned from the Justice Department rather than obey Nixon's order to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor.’”—The Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 23 July>

<1990 “Are you the LAST MAN STANDING? Tell us, Daddy! . . . He issues a slight smile. Otherwise he is not answering. But the boys know the answer. They know that the Father is the LAST MAN STANDING. They are sure of it. Everyone knows.”—Last Man Standing by George Chambers, page 141>

<1994 “‘That leaves Bill Perry as the LAST MAN STANIDING,’ said one senior Pentagon official, adding that Mr. Perry would be an excellent choice.”—New York Times, 22 January>

<1999 “An election wasn't about issues or civics. It was all about being the LAST MAN STANDING.”—Newsweek, 29 November>

<2004 “Aides admit that Mr Blair would take a ‘short-term hit’ from a Kerry victory because the Prime Minister would be portrayed as the ‘LAST MAN STANDING’ who led his country to war in Iraq.”— Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland), 3 November>

<2008 “Mitt Romney already is positioning himself to try again if the nomination is open. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee went from nobody to LAST MAN STANDING against McCain this time, and he could well be back.”—Associated Press Online, 31 August>
One last interesting image that also comes to mind is the LAST MAN STANDING after a night of excessive drinking. And, in fact, I actually found a 1970 reference to this in a new book on H. S. Thompson, the father of ‘gonzo journalism’ who recently passed away:
<2008 “Gonzo. Perhaps derived from the French Canadian gonzeaux. The word had a couple of different meanings, but Bill Cardoso used it in the Boston-bar derivation [[1970]], referring to the LAST MAN STANDING after a night of drinking. Gonzo had a nice ring.”—Outlaw Journalist: The Life and Times of Hunter S. Thompson by William McKeen, page 150>

(quotes are from archived sources)

Ken – September 4, 2008

Re: last man standing

Post by marjan » Mon Oct 31, 2011 2:44 pm

The precise origins of the term are unclear. Some believe the last man standing originally applied to the last boxer to remain upright during a match. Others cite it as referring to the last military cadet to continue in a drill when all others had dropped from exhaustion. Still others claim the term came from old-fashioned spelling bees, in which contestants would be asked to sit after misspelling a word, or from dance competitions, in which individuals or couples either gave up or were judged "out" and asked to sit. Other suggested origins include the ancient battles of Sparta, wrestling matches, and election proceedings.
Today, the term is used in a number of situations. The last man standing may refer to the winner in any given contest or competition, regardless of whether any actual standing is involved. The winner of such contests may have arrived at success via skill, endurance, strength, or any other means. It may also refer to the conquering party in a military or civil battle, or the winner of a sports tournament. It may even refer to the last person to continue pursuit of a goal or objective after all other parties have given up.

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