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What does "Last Man Standing" Mean?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 23, 2024
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The saying "last man standing" refers to a competition, contest, or other situation in which the field of participants is narrowed until only a single individual remains. The term can be applied to a wide variety of circumstances, from golf to art to eating competitions. It is also appears frequently in movies, books, songs, and other types of pop culture. Occasionally, the term may be used to describe a winning couple or team rather than an individual.

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.

Perhaps the most grisly use of the term is in connection with a tontine, an agreement in which a number of persons collectively own something of value, often land. Interest in a tontine cannot be passed to another party, so the last man standing, in this case the last person alive, inherits the entire interest. Throughout history, tontines have been demonstrably dangerous investments.

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.

The popularity of the phrase is apparent by the frequency of its use in pop culture. It is the title of an action film, two television shows, and at least four musical albums. It is also the title of several books, and is the commonly-used name for a cooperative first-person shooter video game mode in which all players operate independently with the goal of being the last player left alive.

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Discussion Comments
By anon218236 — On Sep 28, 2011

In Korea, last man standing, was exactly that in a few of the battles.

By B707 — On Aug 11, 2011

@Misscoco - It's possible that the phrase "last man standing" came from an activity called tontine. The beginnings of tontine goes back at least to the 1700s.

A tontine is a practice where people put money or land into a pool, each getting equal shares. As the members die, there are larger shares. When all of them have died off, there is one "last man standing." And he gets all the funds or property.

Unfortunately, when the last man died, his heirs received no benefits. The money went to the state to encourage gambling - something like our lottery.

This type of community fund was a bit dangerous, to say the least. Tontine sometimes encouraged the practice of "getting rid of" some of the members. So it has been outlawed in most of the world.

By Misscoco — On Aug 10, 2011

I can see how the expression "last man standing" fits with competitions, spelling bees, games, and competitions. But I'm a little unclear about what a tontine is and how "last man standing" fits into that. Does anyone have answers?

By Saraq90 — On Aug 10, 2011

@tolleranza - Admittedly this is not near as dramatic as gladiator matches but I thought that dodgeball was a great example of the phrase "last man standing."

All one needs to do is watch the movie Dodgeball to see the drama that can occur when the competing dodgeball teams both get down to one person and they fight to be....

...the last man standing.

Like I said, not near as dramatic as gladiator matches but is there really a better sport than dodgeball? That is, until of course, you are the one being beaned by a big rubber red ball.

By tolleranza — On Aug 09, 2011

The term "last man standing" has always made me think of gladiator matches in ancient Rome ever since seeing the movie Gladiator.

I highly suggest watching this movie with a Russell Crowe looking dashing in his gladiator uniforms! But even more so, I suggest it because they really encapsulate in the movie what it really must have felt for the people involved from the gladiators to the fans to the emperor in this true "last man standing" event.

Has anybody else seen a better depiction of the term "last man standing" than a gladiator match?

By elizabeth23 — On Aug 08, 2011

I never knew that this phrase could have such a grisly meaning, but I guess it makes sense. I always thought of it more in terms of things like challenging marathons, or those obstacle course races. Though usually more than one person finishes those, being one of the last men (or women) standing can really fill you with a sense of accomplishment.

By FernValley — On Aug 08, 2011

@lighth0se33 I played a few games like that when I was kid, too. I liked that they sort of combined the concept of Simon Says with elements to make it more fast paced. I miss playing games like that in summer camps.

By cloudel — On Aug 07, 2011

When I was young, my family operated on a small budget. I didn’t have a lot of store-bought toys, but I did have a big imagination. I would make up my own games using ordinary household items.

My mom, my brother, and I used to play a game we called “last man standing.” We would take used pieces of paper or newspaper and wad them up. Then, we would each stand against a different wall of the room with an arsenal of paper wads.

It was a less painful version of dodgeball. You could move all around to avoid being hit, but if the paper wad so much as grazed your sleeve, you were out of the game.

By orangey03 — On Aug 06, 2011

The roller skating rink I went to as a child and as a teenager had game night. They offered various challenges to kids on roller skates.

One game was called “last man standing.” It could be dangerous, depending on your ability level. Someone placed several blocks of styrofoam on the floor to set up an obstacle course. The blocks were taped to the floor so that they didn’t scoot around.

The referee blew his whistle, and off we went. Going through a maze on skates really is challenging, and often it didn’t take very long to wind up with a last man standing.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 06, 2011

In my elementary school physical education class, we played a game called “last man standing.” Our teacher named the game himself, and it was appropriate.

The teacher would tell us to lift one leg, extend one arm, touch our noses, and various other things in progression. Along the way, several kids would lose their balance and topple over. If you stumbled out of position, you had to sit down.

The last man standing won and got to be the one to give out commands for the next game. The winner always had great fun making everyone do what he said.

By Perdido — On Aug 05, 2011

The term “last man standing” always makes me think of old western movies. Two men are standing in the middle of the road, about to take part in a duel. The one who makes it out alive is the last man standing.

To me, the term sounds so dramatic that I think of only life and death situations when I hear it. Battles, fights with bare hands, and dangerous games come to mind.

In school, when a kid would challenge his enemy to meet him behind the school buses at 3:00, we called the meeting a “last man standing.” Sometimes, these challenges involved groups of kids, and the winning group was collectively referred to as the last man standing.

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