18

The expression last mile appears to have been first used in a figurative sense in relation to capital punishment:

  • the walk of a condemned person to the place of execution like the shaving of the head before the last mile —Saul Levitt (M-W)

It is not clear when the above usage started, but in more recent decades, apparently from the ‘70s, the expression started to be applied in completely different contexts such as technology and commerce:

Last mile:

(commerce) the last stage in a process, especially of a customer buying goods:

  • One major problem of online shopping is "the last mile" - the delivery to the customer at their home.

(communicarions) the last stage in providing services such as cable television and broadband to homes and businesses:

  • The firm offers an inexpensive and practical way of uncorking the bottleneck of the "last mile", bringing vast amounts of bandwidth to any business that wants it. (Cambridge Dictionary)

and, by extension, the expression has recently found new usages, as suggested by Wikipedia:

In recent years, usage of the term "last mile" has expanded outside the communications industries, to include other distribution networks....The term has also been used to describe education and training providers that more tightly link individuals with job opportunities.

According to Ngram the expression last mile is from the second half of the 18th century, but early usages appear to be mostly literal.

Questions:

  • when did the usage of “last mile” in relation to capital punishment start? and did it originally refer to a real distance?

  • is the later figurative usage (communications/commerce) related to the previous one or does it have a different origin?

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    There seems to be no reason to suspect that there is a link between these two usages. The 'last mile' in telecoms is literally that - with a bit of leeway on the precise distance - it's not a metaphor. Typically the long-distance section of a comms link is easier to provide in one key way: the cost of providing it is amortised over hundreds or thousands of channels. The 'last mile' (or 'local loop') connects to an individual user and different economics apply. Similar arguments apply to distribution networks. – peterG Dec 17 '17 at 20:05
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    For communications, it has a very literal meaning. Connections between the various central offices (COs) were (and still are) quite different than the wires from the CO to the subscriber. – Mike Harris Dec 17 '17 at 20:05
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    Yeah, the use in communications and commerce is not figurative (though not especially precise). It literally means the last segment in the chain of facilities between some centralized business and the final customer. And, if anything, the "last mile" for communications/commerce alludes to the biblical "extra mile". – Hot Licks Dec 17 '17 at 21:24
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    No, but it might explain Comcast's US-based callcenter service attitude... – smci Dec 18 '17 at 23:18
4
+100

As should be apparent from the common semantics of figurative (metaphorical) uses of the phrase 'last mile' — where the core meaning is "final period of greater difficulty, cost or suffering", which most definitely includes uses in commerce, telecommunications, transportation, and prison argot, among others — such uses are closely related.

In this sense ("final period of greater difficulty, cost or suffering"), the source of the metaphor seems to have been the tradition among religious pilgrims of walking the 'last mile' of their pilgrimage barefoot or otherwise in such a manner as to show their humility and devotion by increasing their suffering and hardship as they approached the end of their pilgrimage.

Although, considering the symbolic structure of a religious pilgrimage, the correspondence of the journey with a symbolic journey through life to death should be expected to have given rise to earlier figurative use, the earliest direct evidence of metaphorical use I could turn up on short notice was in John Donne's Holy Sonnets, sonnet VI:

This is my play's last scene, here Heavens appoint
My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race,
Idly yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span's last inch, my minute's latest point;
And gluttonous Death will instantly unjoint
My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
....

The composition date of the poem is not known. It is generally agreed, however, that the poem was composed in the first decade of the 1600s, and certainly it was composed before 1633, the date of its first publication.

While I cannot be precise about the date of the first metaphorical use of 'last mile' sponsored by the traditional practices of pilgrims making the last mile of their pilgrimage, it is probably no earlier than, and likely somewhat later than, the first attested use (possibly around 1225; possibly before 1200) of 'pilgrim' in this figurative sense from the OED:

Originally and chiefly in religious contexts: a person travelling through life, esp. one who undertakes a course of spiritual development leading towards heaven, a state of blessedness, etc.; a person who experiences life as a sojourn, exile, or period of estrangement from such a state.

To make all this exceedingly plain, the religious pilgrimage symbolically represents the journey through life to death, and so on to everlasting life; the last mile of the pilgrimage symbolically represents the spiritual and physical hardships attendant upon a nearer approach to death.

General metaphorical use of last mile in this sense was and continues to be commonplace. Specific applications of the sense can be found in prison argot, telecommunications, and transportation. It is no barrier to the relationship of the specific applications of the phrase in those areas with its source in the tradition of religious pilgrimage that contemporary users of the phrase are unaware of its distant origins.


Regarding the first of your two specific questions, I've found no definitive earlier use of the exact phrase 'last mile' in prison argot than the one mentioned by RaceYouAnytime, in the 1930 play by John Wexley titled The Last Mile. A similar phrase, the 'last milestone', does appear (perhaps coincidentally) in the 1920 biography of Charles Chapin, a newspaper editor convicted of his wife's murder and incarcerated in Sing Sing. About his incarceration he remarks

Looking backward now from the last milestone [in context, a direct reference to his incarceration in Sing Sing] of my life's journey, I am wondering what I might have achieved if I could have had the opportunities so many young men neglect.

Regarding the second of your two specific questions, that is,

is the later figurative usage (communications/commerce) related to the previous one or does it have a different origin?

see the full explication given in the first section of this answer.

49

I doubt the telecommunications usage of "last mile" has much to do with the figurative usage you cite.

The original telecommunications use of the "last mile" is very concrete: It's the pair of physical wires that run between the customer's house and the telephone branch office. It's not always exactly one mile long, of course, but in a typical urban setting a mile is a good ballpark indicator of the range of lengths we're talking about.

Here "last" has a primarily spatial meaning, rather than the temporal "last" in your prison sense. The last mile is the part of the communications chain that is closest to the actual customer, and therefore lies "last" when you view the world from the telco's head office.

I would date the rise of this expression not to the 1970s but specifically to 1982 when the Bell System was broken up by court order and the telephony market in North America suddenly had to support competition between different commercial carriers. Competitors to AT&T would be expected to install their own equipment in branch offices and lay their own cables to transmit calls between branch offices -- but for the last mile between the branch offices and every house it would be prohibitively expensive and disruptive if each new player on the market had to dig up every street everywhere to lay cables of their own to every house they wanted to have as customers. So making rules for how multiple competing carriers would share use of the same last-mile cables suddenly became important (and, in some cases, bitterly fought over).

A decade or two later those last miles became important for another reason -- namely with the spread of the Internet. Those miles-of-so of twisted copper wires were designed to carry a single voice conversation at a time, and it was and is a major engineering bottleneck to push a reasonable internet connection through them. Communications providers could upgrade their equipment at and between branch offices to newer technologies, such as optical fibers, but because each customer has his own last mile of cable it would be enormously costly to replace all of them with something better, and therefore most homes are still stuck with them.

This telecommunications usage has spawned its own figurative usages, where for example in Internet video distribution, the "last mile" often means the communication path between the end user and the distributor's server farm closest to that customer -- even though the server farm is probably not located in his local telephone exchange (though in some cases it may be).

  • 1
    You are probably right, but I can’t imagine that whoever initially used the expression in the telecom business , presumably an American, was not aware of the older American expression used in jail. In any case they didn’t appear to care about the “macabre” association. – user240918 Dec 18 '17 at 14:40
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    @user159691 I wouldn't necessarily agree with that. I certainly wasn't aware of the term being used in relation to capital punishment before now. It's certainly possible that it was more common knowledge in the 70s and 80s, but I certainly CAN imagine it being uncommonly known or mostly understood only in specific niches. – Kamil Drakari Dec 18 '17 at 16:22
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    @KamilDrakari - I think that the expression, though with a different nuance, was made popular also by this famous movie en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Mile_(film) – user240918 Dec 18 '17 at 16:41
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    @user159691 Why would they be aware of a jail expression of >50 years ago? There is really no need to invent influences. The last mile in cabling is also particular in telecoms because it is often a different type of cable compared to the rest of the network. – Gnudiff Dec 18 '17 at 20:56
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    @user159691 I am sorry. It is just that I work with ICT and I have never ever heard any reference of the last mile to jail/execution last mile. Arguably, 'last mile' is a pretty generic term. You can have last mile cabling, deliveries etc, as the very last thing to be done to provide service to customer. While it is not impossible that all of them refer to the jail, I find it somewhat implausible. – Gnudiff Dec 18 '17 at 22:01
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Well before 1932, when RaceYouAnytime dates the prison use, there was a very popular WWI song—my father learned it in the Army in WWII, so it was still being sung a quarter-century later—that remarked on the exceptional difficulty of the last mile of a long hike:

The Last Long Mile Emil Breitenfield 1917 recording

Oh, they put me in the Army
And they handed me a pack,
They took away my nice new clothes
And dolled me up in tack.
They marched me twenty miles a day
To fit me for the war;
I didn't mind the first nineteen,
But the last one made me sore!

Oh, it's not the pack
That you carry on your back,
Nor the Springfield on your shoulder.
Nor the five inch crust
Of Clinton County dust
That makes you feel your limbs are growing older.
And it's not the hike
On the hard turnpike
That wipes away your smile,
Nor the socks of sisters
That raise the blooming blisters,
It's the last long mile!

Some day they'll send us over
And they'll put us in the trench,
Taking pop shots at the Fritz's
With the Tommy's and the French.
And someday we'll be marching
Through a town across the Rhine,
And then, you bet, we'll all forget
These mournful words of mine!

Oh, it's not the pack
That you carry on your back,
Nor the Springfield on your shoulder.
Nor the five inch crust
Of Clinton County dust
That makes you feel your limbs are growing older.
And it's not the hike
On the hard turnpike
That wipes away your smile,
Nor the socks of sisters
That raise the blooming blisters,
It's the last long mile!

  • 1
    See also library.timelesstruths.org/music/The_Last_Mile_of_the_Way where it again means 'walking to your death' rather than literally the last mile of a hike. (in this case, a 'long' last mile means that the waiting around to die is what drains the solder, rather than the physical discomfort) – Pete Kirkham Dec 18 '17 at 12:55
  • @PeteKirkham But the soldier in the song has not shipped out to the war yet - he's marching "twenty miles a day to fit [him] for the war". – StoneyB Dec 18 '17 at 13:32
  • Yes, and it's not the hard training that's wearing him down, but the contemplation of the fact he's got to go the last mile to his death. – Pete Kirkham Dec 18 '17 at 14:03
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    @PeteKirkham Not so: in fact he explicitly states that once they get into actual combat he and his buddies will forget this complaint. – StoneyB Dec 18 '17 at 14:27
  • Ha, this reminds me of "the first ten miles, and then the second ten miles, and then the third ten miles" of a marathon. – MissMonicaE Dec 18 '17 at 15:28
7

The earliest citation in Green's Dictionary of Slang for "last mile" in the prison sense is from 1932.

She trod the ‘last mile’ bravely, if not with dignity.

  • L.E. Lawes Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing 316

However, it appears that this can be antedated, probably significantly, as there was a play about death row inmates released in 1930 titled "The Last Mile," so presumably the slang was well established by then.

A search of newspaper archives shows a large spike in 1930, probably owing to the release of this play.

5

The first usage relative to prisons was in a February 13th, 1930 theatrical production of "The Last Mile" by John Wexley. It was mentioned the following day in a review in the New York Times.

Book: The Last Mile, by John Wexley


Derivative:

The term "last mile" was derived from the combination of the words "last" and "mile", obviously. What may not be so obvious is the meaning of "mile" (an arbitrary distance, chosen to denote a degree of difficulty).

The idiom: "Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes" was almost certainly is derived from a Mary T. Lathrap poem published in 1895.

The original title of the poem was "Judge Softly", later titled "Walk a Mile in His Moccasins" (likely because the expression was mentioned many times throughout the poem).

There are many variations on the phrase such as walk a mile in his, her or my shoes. A plea for empathy is phrased put yourself in my shoes, as well as put yourself in his or her shoes.


Why do people use the term "mile" to describe difficulty?

In the book "Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior" by David Stea the author explains people's perception of, and judgment or estimation of, various distances and how they are cognitively mapped:

A model of spatial cognition

... Initially, we must distinguish between objective physical space and individual space. The characteristics of objective physical space are defined on the two-dimensional Euclidean plane. ...

Through the process of perception as it modifies, and in turn is modified by, learning and thinking, the organism obtains information about physical space. This information generates both an image of a particular environment with which the individual has had direct experience and a set of generalized cognitive categories against which perceptual inputs from new environments can be compared and thus identified, organized, and given meaning.

The physical space of a city is learned over time in three ways : (1) through behavior in which information is gained directly from the city structure through the visual, auditory, olfactory, and kinaesthetic sense modalities; (2) from symbolic representations of the city using visual media such as maps, photographs, and written words; and auditory media such as spoken words or recordings; (3) from ideas about parts of the city which have not been gained through behavior or symbolic representations, but are inferred from experiences in other spatial locations (see chaps. 4, 6, and 15). Knowledge so learned is spatially discontinuous compared with the objective physical space of the Euclidean plane.

This knowledge may be organized into a hierarchy in which knowledge of higher levels is partly dependent upon, and in turn is influenced by, knowledge of the lower levels.".

David Stea's position being that many people perceive distances in bits and pieces mapped together to derive an estimate without an precise measurement being considered, particularly at larger distances; and based upon their environment and experiences.

This supports the position that people whom are not surveyors (or others with practice in precise distance measurement) throw around terms like "a mile" without an exact correspondence to either distance nor the environment as experienced by another person.



Premise offered by @user159691: "The expression last mile appears to have been first used in a figurative sense in relation to capital punishment".

Incorrect.

Saul Levitt (born March 13, 1911), is whom you attribute to the 'first usage', but in the article "Why Are Marathons 26.2 Miles Long?" by Dan Peterson he writes:

"After 1896, the next few Olympic marathons varied in distance with the idea that as long as all runners ran the same course, there was no need to keep the distance exactly the same.

For the 1908 London Olympics, the course was laid out from Windsor Castle to White City stadium, about 26 miles. However, to locate the finish line in front of the royal family's viewing box, an extra 385 yards was added inside the stadium. Hence the marathon tradition of yelling "God save the Queen" in the last mile.

Despite the success of that first race, it took 13 more years of arguing before the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) adopted the 1908 distance as the official marathon. In fact, of the first seven modern Olympics, there were six different distances.".

Other Sources: "Galloway's Marathon FAQ: Over 100 of the Most Frequently Asked Questions" by Jeff Galloway and "Practice Makes Perfect: Level 7: Preparation for State Reading Assessments" by Sondra Y. Abel.


In the book "Historical Dictionary of Contemporary American Theater: 1930-2010" by James Fisher the noun "last mile" is mentioned "in relation to capital punishment" in the description of the theatrical production "The Last Mile" on page 450:

450 • LAST MILE, THE

LAST MILE, THE. A naturalistic prison drama, The Last Mile opened on 13 February 1930 at the Sam H. Harris Theatre, starring a young SPENCER TRACY in the dynamic leading role of John "Killer" Mears, a tough inmate on death row who leads his fellow prisoners in a riot to protest prison conditions. JOHN WEXLEY'S play won critical acclaim and ran for 289 performances, with subsequent touring productions (including one starring Clark Gable) and film versions in 1932 and 1959. The sensation caused by The Last Mile led to a spate of prison-themed plays and films and, more importantly, to prison reform and heightening debate over the viability of the death penalty.


Questions:

  • When did the usage of “last mile” in relation to capital punishment start? and did it originally refer to a real distance?

John Wexley probably came up with the idea of applying prior usage to capital punishment prior to his theatrical production The Last Mile on 13 February 1930.

In death penalty parlance, the distance between death row and the death chamber is called the last mile.

Neither prisons nor theaters involve a mile long walk for the condemned.

  • Is the later figurative usage (communications/commerce) related to the previous one or does it have a different origin?

Related?, as an exaggeration.

I'm not aware of reports of a direct correlation between working on the last mile of cabling or delivery being a death sentence, though it's obviously possible that it has occurred.

It's possibly a confusion about the often quoted statistic that "most accidents involving motor vehicles occurring within 5 blocks of one's home (only barely so, at 52%, and most are not fatal; unlike accidents occurring over 5 miles from one's home which are more likely so).".

The expression "last mile" should simply be thought of as "the most difficult part", that way it's applicable to the majority of correct usages.


Related usage "The Longest Yard", a movie where prison inmates play football against their guards. The implication of the film's title was that getting the last yard was the most difficult part, arguably it wasn't.

  • Nice research, so it appears that the marathon was the first source for the figurative usage of last mile meaning “the most difficult part” of something. – user240918 Dec 18 '17 at 10:18
  • @user159691 - I do not know that it was first source (ever) but it was apparently before the time of Levitt, presumably it was in usage prior to the marathon; there's no evidence that the term was invented to describe "running past the Palace". The preface to my answer to your specific questions was only to establish that it was not first used to describe the journey to the gallows. – Rob Dec 18 '17 at 10:49
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    The usage in the marathon sense appears to be entirely literal, and not figurative at all. – psmears Dec 18 '17 at 11:24
  • @user159691 - I've updated the answer and split the idiom to it's root. – Rob Dec 18 '17 at 16:37
  • Yes, very nice, though I don't buy this at all: "Initially, we must distinguish between objective physical space and individual space." – Lambie Dec 25 '17 at 15:46

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