Eleven

eleventh hour

I have been learning English idioms with time units, and came across the expression eleventh hour.

To do something at the eleventh hour is to do it at the last possible moment, just before it is too late.

I have heard this expression before, but was never sure of its meaning, even less of its origin. Whereas expressions with numbers are frequent in many languages, some numbers, such as one, two, or seven, are clear favourites. Why on earth the eleventh?

It turns out the expression has a Biblical origin: it comes from the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew xx.1-16), where some laborers appeared only at the eleventh hour (qui circa undecimam horam venerant). The eleventh in the expression does not refer to the last hour before midnight, but to the eleventh hour according to the Roman timekeeping, which started at sunrise, and roughly corresponds to the late afternoon, hence the meaning ‘at the last moment’.

Many Biblical expressions have their equivalents in multiple languages, but to my knowledge, not the eleventh hour. Perhaps, the reason is that some vernacular translations, such as Italian, localize the hour, and speak about five in the afternoon.

Speaking of eleven, its etymology is also curious. In English, eleven (and its twin sibling twelve) are odd ones in the sequence starting with thirteen and going to nineteen. Eleven derives from the Old English enleofan, literally “one left” (over ten), and is comparable to the German elf (and its twin sibling zwölf).

I also learned that in Lithuanian (which is an Indo-European language, but Baltic, not Germanic), the cardinal number from 11 to 19 use the same formation: they all end with -lika, which means “something that remains beyond ten”, and that –lika is related to the -leven/-lve in English. Hence, the English eleven has a Lithuanian cousin, vienuolika.