Does at the proverbial last minute have a special meaning ?

or the word proverbial is used in its usual meaning?

What is the difference if it has a special meaning between

at the last minute and

at the proverbial last minute ?

  • 2
    Proverbial means that the speaker or writer is referring to the figure of speech (in idiom, not necessarily in proverb), but the intent depends on context. It can either be used to emphasize that something occurred at a proverbial, as opposed to, literal last minute, but I could also see it used for the exact opposite, to indicate that the proverbial last minute and the literal last minute have a rare coincidence.
    – choster
    Oct 26, 2015 at 14:39
  • Yes, the use of "proverbial <idiom>" often (though not always) implies that the metaphorical and literal meanings of the idiom have nearly coincided. (In cases where this is not true the term merely identifies the idiom as being one, vs a literal expression. Don't ask how you tell the difference, but we usually seem to do so.)
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 26, 2015 at 20:23

3 Answers 3


The word proverbial is defined as:

Well known, especially so as to be stereotypical: ‘the Welsh people, whose hospitality is proverbial’

When you look at the following examples, you will notice that the word is placed before a word that is used in a proverb (or an idiom).

‘You don't have to be a Democrat, a liberal, or a socialist to acknowledge that the proverbial wheels are falling off the juggernaut.’
‘For those who may have been living under the proverbial rock, Andy Warhol is perhaps the most well-known American artist of the twentieth century.’
‘Taken at face value, the question seems simple enough but scratch it and the hidden prejudices and stereotypes tumble out of the cupboard like the proverbial skeletons.’

[Oxford Online Dictionary]

Using "proverbial" in "at the proverbial last minute", the writer wants to express the last munite is the stereotypical expression that is commonly used by many people.

If you don't use "proverbial" in the three examples above, some people might think about real "wheels/rock/skeletons" which might be misleading if they don't know the real meaning of the relevant proverbs/idioms.


The expression the last minute used referring to "the time just preceding a deadline or when some decisive action must be taken." is quite common, and in that respect it is said to be "proverbial".

Ngram: until the last minute


  • Widely referred to, as if the subject of a proverb; famous.
  • Both sentences convey the same meaning, the second one just adds emphasis on the very common usage of the expression.



The word proverbial is used in it's normal meaning here:

proverbial: that has become a proverb or byword : commonly spoken of

Example: the proverbial restlessness of sailors

(Webster's Unabridged)

Widely referred to, as if the subject of a proverb; famous.

(American Heritage Dictionary)

So, "at the proverbial last minute" refers to a common, widely spoken of situation when people put off urgent things till later. For example:

At the proverbial last minute, a team member noticed a serious problem with the design.

When you add the word "proverbial", you emphasize that this happens very often to a lot of people, that this is a common situation people can relate to.

If you just say "at the last minute", this emphasis is lost.

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