This is a very commonly used English proverb which derives from Shakespearean language. Find out more about the meaning and origin below!
The expression is used most commonly in introductions when it comes to the final person the speaker may use the phrase in order to affirm that the final speaker is just as important as those who have come before.
It is agreed upon that the expression was first used in theatrical productions however there is no consensus regarding the date on which it was first used. It is suggested that it was first used in 1580 in John Lyly’s Euphues and His England which reads “I have heard oftentimes that in love there are three things for to be used: if time serve, violence, if wealth be great, gold, if necessity compel, sorcery. But of these three but one can stand me in stead – the last, but not the least’; which is able to work the minds of all women like wax.”
Although this first example dates to the year 1580 it has been suggested by some that the phrase was inspired by a verse from the Bible. In Matthew 19:30 from the year 1382 the phrase “but manye schulen be, the firste the laste, and the laste the firste” is found and it is often argued that this inspired the current phrase.
An example of this expression in use can be found in Shakespeare’s King Lear from 1605. It reads; “No less in space, validity, and pleasure,
Than that conferr’d on Goneril. Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”