Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I came across the phrase, ““famous last words.” I took it literally as the last word delivered by famous people. But Wikipedia defines““famous last words” other than this sense as:

  1. used in a conversation to show disbelief of the previous statement.
  2. used as a warning that following the course of action just mentioned will result in impending doom. For example: A. "We won't miss the train. Mike's never late". B. "Famous last words!"

However, Readers English Japanese Dictionary, a popular and reputed Japanese English dictionary published in Japan at hand shows the definitions:

  1. n. Collection of famous last words.
  2. (joc/iron) ①そうでしょうとも(That’s right / Exactly).②それはどうかな(It’s dubious. / I can’t trust it.).

The definitions of the above ① and ② are clearly conflicting. ① is affirmative, and ② is skeptical, if not totally disapproval.

Can “famous last words” be used in an affirmative or approving way as Readers Dictionary says in ① of the above definitions?

share|improve this question
    
To start with, famous last words is not 'literally the last word delivered by famous people,' as you later discovered. Sense in both AmE & BrE, not sence. –  Kris Mar 17 '13 at 6:02
    
famous last words informal said when someone makes a statement that is shown very soon, and in an embarrassing way, to be wrong: I told him categorically that we could never be anything more than friends. Famous last words! Within a few months we were engaged. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/british/famous-last-words See also: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=famous%20last%20words (1) –  Kris Mar 17 '13 at 6:07
    
famous last words said as an ironic comment on an overconfident assertion that may later be proved wrong: ‘I’ll be perfectly OK on my own.’ ‘Famous last words,’ she thought to herself oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/famous –  Kris Mar 17 '13 at 6:11
add comment

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Do you remember Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, hosts of the off-beat radio show called Car Talk? Their website has a list of classic (and very funny) "Famous Last Words", including these:

  1. He's probably just hibernating.
  2. What does this button do?
  3. Are you sure the power is off?
  4. Let it down slowly.
  5. These are the good kind of mushrooms.
  6. It's strong enough for both of us.
  7. The odds of that happening have to be a million to one!
  8. I'll hold it and you light the fuse.
  9. Don't be so superstitious.

If you understand the spirit of "famous last words," each one of these should elicit a chuckle. Obvious, #1 is talking about a bear – a bear that wasn't just hibernating. As for #2, I don't know what that button does, but I don't think the speaker should have pressed it! In #3, they thought they had turned the power off, but I guess they shut off the wrong circuit breaker. I suppose in #4, the speaker is standing under something heavy, like a piano – just before the rope snaps. And on it goes.

The phrase "famous last words" is more than just skeptical or dubious, there's a hint of irony mixed in, with maybe even a bit of superstition, bad karma, or Murphy's Law, too. Going back to the example you cited:

We won't miss the train. Mike's never late.

Can't you just feel how such an utterance increases the probability that Mike's going to be late, and we're going to miss the train? Instead of saying, "Famous last words," I could reply by saying this – it would convey about the same meaning:

Don't say that – you'll jinx us.

or:

There's a first time for everything!

The "last words" in the expression "famous last words" could be the last words ever spoken, if the utterance preceded some fatal calamity. However, they could just as easily refer to the last words spoken "before the accident happened," or "before we called the ambulance," "before we missed the train," or, "before the house caught on fire."

Here are a few more to think about:

I do this all the time!
Don't worry, I'm sure the ice is thick enough.
I'm positive this answer won't get downvoted.

Famous last words.

share|improve this answer
1  
JR, famous last words! (t-i-c) –  Kris Mar 17 '13 at 6:12
    
Even though these are usually said humorously, there are times when they can be linked to tragic events as well. –  J.R. Aug 4 '13 at 12:05
add comment

If the phrase is used alone in spoken English, ("Famous last words!") it is an indirect way of saying "I don't believe what you just said." This is the usage closest to the second part of the second definition you found.

If the phrase is used in spoken English as part of a full sentence, it will usually mean what you initially thought it meant: the last words spoken by a famous person. "Julius Caesar's famous last words are still remembered by millions today." In sentences like this, where a specific person is named, it would be sufficient to leave out the word "famous" and just say "last words", since it is already implied that the person, and therefore the quote, is famous.

To the best of my knowledge, "famous last words" would never mean "That's right" or "exactly".

share|improve this answer
    
Also check out my comment @OP. –  Kris Mar 17 '13 at 6:04
add comment

Yes, the phrase "famous last words" can be interpreted literally. It's actually a trope, see here.

However, I think the skeptical expression is the more common interpretation.

EDIT: I wouldn't say this is a positive expression, nor do I think your dictionary's definition is positive: I would say both are neutral.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Just plain last words would be interpreted literally, but famous last words has the negative connotation and implication you mention.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.