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.