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To be on one's last legs means to be worn out, tired, run down, and ready to die or otherwise cease working. Some examples I've found are

Grandfather is on his last legs. He'll be on his way to Heaven soon.

I just ran a mile to tell you this; I can't walk up the steps. I'm on my last legs.

My car is on its last legs. I doubt it will get me down the street to the used car dealer.

I've searched a bit on the interwebs, and while definitions abound, I can find no reference to the origin of the phrase. Why "last legs"? What happened to the first ones? What has interchangeable legs anyhow?

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1  
I just caught myself saying that my worn shoes are on their last legs, but maybe it would be more accurate to say they are on their last feet. –  user62187 Jan 13 at 13:13
    
You will know your last legs first. –  user76628 May 19 at 14:16
    
I'm surprised—almost disgusted—that in three years, nobody has seen fit to mention that this expression obviously originated among millipedes. Once you've crawled past on about a thousand legs and have reached the last ones, you know you're biund to be a bit knackered. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 23 at 0:57

5 Answers 5

up vote 5 down vote accepted

To add to @Robusto's answer - regarding the origin - the below seems more definitive and is taken from "The Facts on File dictionary of clichés"

To be extremely tired or about to collapse; near the end. Despite the implication, this term never meant that legs were in any way serial—that is, beginning with the first and ending with the last. Rather, it uses last meaning “near the end” (of one’s energy or life). The expression was already used in the sixteenth century; it appears in the play The Old Law (1599) by Thomas Middleton and Philip Massinger: “My husband goes upon his last hour now—on his last legs, I am sure.” In John Ray’s Proverbs (1678) the term is defined as meaning “bankrupt,” and since then it has been transferred to anything nearing its end or about to fail, as in, “This cliché may be on its last legs.”

However this link dates "The Old Law" as

On his last legs. The Old Law (1618-19), Act v. Sc. 1.

The exact text as it appears online

EUGENIA My husband goes upon his last hour now.

FIRST COURTIER On his last legs, I'm sure.

EUGENIA September the seventeenth, I will not bate an hour on it; and tomorrow His latest hour's expired.

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Various sources lists its first usage from the 1590s, and the Google Books result in an etymological dictionary of the Scottish language gives this explanation of the source of the term (screen snap because no C&P available in GB):

enter image description here

Edited to add link to the material, which I forgot earlier.

Also, because of some dialogue in the comments. let me add that last legs does not mean the last of a series of legs, but the last stages of leg strength. It's a metaphorical usage; in fact, legs is used her as a metonym standing in for strength, vitality, or life itself.

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Screen snap is fine, can we have a link, too, please? Could not find it on my own. –  Unreason Jun 24 '11 at 11:59
    
But what sort of beast has interchangeable legs then? Why "last legs"? –  KitFox Jun 24 '11 at 12:05
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@Kit: I believe last legs here does not mean the older ones have been replaced - but instead that "your legs can move no more, they've reached their last". Almost like when one dies, they say he breathed his last. –  JoseK Jun 24 '11 at 12:14
    
@Kit: What @JoseK said. –  Robusto Jun 24 '11 at 12:16
    
@JoseK @Robusto Ah, that makes sense. Then if one of you makes that your answer, I shall accept it. –  KitFox Jun 24 '11 at 12:18

Yes it is surely metaphorical and refers to legs that will stand no longer, last little longer (without suggesting that sense of 'last')

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The above quotes explain the meaning and that you can find in any dictionary. But they don't try to find out out where this funny picture comes from. And I dare to say you won't find such an explanation.

I have the habit simply to ask can I find a situation or a model where the expression might make sense. And any situation or model that would make sense is acceptable.

My personal model is conected with some insects with six legs which are fighting. They try to bite off the legs of each other. The weakest one has already four legs bitten off and can hardly move. Here you can say it's on its last legs and its end is predictable.

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I believe the term may potentially be rooted in the use of the word leg as a portion, as in, e.g., "the last leg of the journey." This is only my opinion but I can also see the analogy to a quadriped animal limping on all but one or two legs.

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This has been ruled out in the other answers, I'm afraid. –  Matt Эллен Dec 5 '12 at 12:16

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