English language Etymology Phrase origin Usage

At long last

Q: I was wondering if you would address the peculiar phrase “at long last” (as in Joseph Welch’s famous rebuke of Senator Joseph McCarthy). What strikes me is that the phrase is nonsensical on its face: a preposition followed by two adjectives neither of which may be said to modify the other.

A: The phrase is quite old, dating back to the early 1500s, and it isn’t all that nonsensical when considered in light of the English spoken at that time.

The phrase appeared in a somewhat longer version, “at the long last,” when it first showed up, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest published reference for it in the OED is from A Goodly Garlande or Chapelet of Laurell, a 1523 work by the poet John Skelton:

“How than lyke a man he wan the barbican / With a sawte of solace at the longe last.” (A barbican is a defensive tower, gate, or bridge.)

Oxford suggests that the word “last” could be a noun here, not an adjective. At the time the phrase showed up, one use of “last” was as a noun meaning a continuance or a duration.

Although this sense of “last” is now rare, here’s an example from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a 1587 history of England, Scotland, and Ireland: “Things memorable, of perpetuitie, fame, and last.”

The OED’s first citation for the shorter phrase, “at long last,” is from Thomas Carlyle’s The History of Friedrich II of Prussia (1864): “At long last, on Sunday.”

And here’s a citation from the Dec. 11, 1936, speech in which the ex-King Edward VIII and future Duke of Windsor announced his abdication to marry Wallis Simpson: “At long last I am able to say a few words of my own.”

He went on to say: “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”

The dictionary defines the phrase “at long last” as “at the end of all; finally, ultimately.”

Finally we’ll return to that June 9, 1954, comment by Welch, the chief counsel for the Army when it was being investigated by McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

On the 30th day of the Army-McCarthy hearings, as the Senator was attacking a junior attorney at Welch’s law firm, Welch broke in several times.

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” he said during one interruption. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

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