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Someone happened to use the phrase "the 59th minute of the eleventh hour" just now on IRC (#lisp on Freenode). I remarked that that should be "the twelfth hour". This then started me wondering where that apparently nonsensical phrase came from. It means at the last minute, of course, but in what sense is the eleventh hour the last minute? A quick google finds, for example http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/eleventh_hour, but that doesn't really explain anything. The Biblical usage seems to mean "late in the day" (apparently 5 pm or so), not "at the last minute". Or is it just that the meaning of the phrase has changed slightly over time?

  • Here's Matthew Mead in The Good of Early Obedience (1683): If God calls not till the eleventh hour, he that comes in at the eleventh hour comes in good time; but he that is called at the first or third hour, may come too late if he puts it off till the eleventh. – FumbleFingers Sep 21 '14 at 17:14
  • @FF I'm not totally convinced about the relevance to linguistics, but the sentiment is marvellous. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 21 '14 at 18:36
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    Note that the Roman time system referred to twelve 'hours' from sunrise to sunset (and twelve hours of the night from sunset to sunrise). So the eleventh hour was by definition the period just before the end (of the day). – Tim Lymington supports Monica Sep 21 '14 at 19:22
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Its origin is biblical and refers to the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew XX)

The following extracts from the OED are interesting and give some indication of the etymology of the modern expression from as early as 971AD.

eleventh hour: the latest possible time, in allusion to the parable of the labourers ( Matt. xx.); also eleventh-hour used attrib. or as adj.

971 Blickl. Hom. 93 Eall eorþe bið mid þeostrum oforþeaht æt þa endlyftan tid þæs dæges.

c1000 West Saxon Gospels: Matt. (Corpus Cambr.) xx. 6 Ða embe þa endlyftan tide he uteode.

c1175 Lamb. Hom. 117 Endleofte unþeau is folc beo butan steore.

1297 R. Gloucester's Chron. (1724) 414 Þe enlefte day of heruest.

a1300 Cursor Mundi 22627 Þe signe o þe dai elleft, It es na skil þat it be left.

1340 R. Rolle Pricke of Conscience 4798 Þe ellevend day men sal com out Of caves.

1829 R. Southey All for Love i. 11 Tho' at the eleventh hour Thou hast come to serve our Prince of Power.

1870 D. G. Rossetti Let. 17 Mar. (1965) II. 820 But I am getting into that mistrustful state which 11th hour work is sure to engender.

1897 C. M. Flandrau Harvard Episodes 230 So, in response to John's eleventh-hour prayers, he did what he could.

  • Interesting that this part of scripture is the appointed Gospel reading for Mass today. – Andrew Leach Sep 21 '14 at 17:17
  • Would you mind adding > quote marks to show what's quoted, please? And copy italics and suchlike accurately? (And the very last two words probably shouldn't be there) – Andrew Leach Sep 21 '14 at 17:18
  • @AndrewLeach What a coincidence. I should have also mentioned in view of the saturation coverage we have been getting on the First World War, that there was always irony in the fact that it ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. And it is at that time that we still commemorate the two-minutes silence every year. – WS2 Sep 21 '14 at 17:20
  • I’ve done a quick and dirty edit to add quote marks, though I think the fact that basically the entire entry is copy-pasted from the OED here means that it’s definitely going past anything that can be labelled ‘fair use’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 21 '14 at 17:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet By all means I will delete it if you prefer, but plenty of others copy paste from the OED all the time. – WS2 Sep 21 '14 at 17:23

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