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The meaning and origin of the expression: Famous last words

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Famous last words

Meaning

A remark or prediction that is likely to be proved wrong by events.

Origin

Before "famous last words" became used as a rejoinder to point out the possible recklessness of an assertitions of safety or certainty, it was used to refer to the actual dying words of prominent people. It was probably brought into the realm of sarcasm by such well-known last words as "They couldn't hit an elephant from this distance" - an actual statement made by U.S. Civil War General John Sedgwick, immediately prior to his being shot dead by a sniper.

Famous last wordsIt was initially used in a fugurative sense to suggest in jest that something that had been said might cause offence and result in the speaker being put in a dangerous position; for example:

A. "I think I'll ask Mike Tyson if he's always had that lisp".
B. "Famous last words!".

The first instances of this form were printed in a series of newspaper cartoons in the 1920s/30s. This early example is from The Milwaukee Sentinel July, 1928.

The phrase was later extended to refer to more general potentially lethal situations, not necessarily involving the speaker, as in this piece from Shell Aviation News, 1948:

Leopoldville is easy to find because you cannot miss the Congo River. (Famous last words!)

It is now used widely and in reference to situations where the outcome might be bad, but in a minor rather than lethal way; for example:

A. "We won't miss the train. Mike's never late".
B. "Famous last words!".

A more recent version of the comical but rather tragic actual last words to rival General Sedgwick's are the final words of Terry Kath, a founding member of the rock band Chicago, He said, "Don't worry, it's not loaded." just before accidentally shooting himself in the head with a 9mm. pistol.

See also: the famous last words of famous people.