I have been learning Englishidioms 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 Biblicalorigin: 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 Germanelf (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.
Unlike in 2019, when I had not planned my language learning ahead, in 2020, prompted by the first lock-down, I actually sat down and thought deeply about my language focus for the rest of the year.
I decided that three priorities would be more than enough: improving English, improving Italian, and learning Estonian.
These three languages were in focus in 2020, although I used more throughout the year. In fact, every day I use at least three languages, but the average is five.
So, how well did I do in 2020? Let’s look first at my three priorities.
I set myself tree goals: to speak more idiomatically, to have a richer vocabulary, and to improve my pronunciation and intonation. To achieve these goals, I intended to learn idiomatic expressions and phrasal verbs, to do pronunciation exercises, and to shadow native English speakers.
I managed to work only on the vocabulary, focusing in idioms, and learned plenty: colour idioms, food idioms, nature idioms, you name it. Although I still feel that improving my English is an uphill battle, sometime in September I caught myself using in professional setting the idiomatic expressions that I had learned. For example, I would write that a proposal was not ‘set in stone’, that two partners were working ‘hand in glove’, or that we needed to ‘keep the show on the road’. I was pleased like a cat that ate the cream.
Lesson learned from this experience: have fewer goals for English. In fact, with English, one goal at a time would be enough.
Estonian was the second focus of 2020, and I am pleased with my progress. I finished my 1980s Estonian manual, followed all 30 episodes of the first series of a radio programmeКак это по-эстонски? (‘How do you say it in Estonian?’), writing down all grammar rules and examples, and finished 13 out of 16 lessons of the free online course Keeleklikk for beginners. I have followed some Estonians on Twitter, managing to understand some tweets about current Estonian politics, and learned some useful words, such as valitsus ‘government’.
Back in June, I decided that 2020 would be an Italian year, and set myself three lofty goals.
First, learning Italian poems by heart. Total failure: I learned only one poem in the whole year, albeit a wonderful one, Meriggiare by Eugenio Montale.
Second, covering my gaps in grammar and vocabulary. 50/50: I learned quite a few idioms and wrote down expressions and idioms from the books I was reading.
Third, reading in Italian for pleasure. Bravissima: I read 12 Italian books, including BoccaccioDecameron, DanteInferno, Italo CalvinoI nostri antenati, and all four volumes of Amica geniale (Neapolitan novels) by ElenaFerrante.
I had a plan to revise some forgotten aspects of Italian grammar over summer, but did not do it. My spoken Italian is grammatically sound, hence, given traveling to Italy was out of question this year, I decided I would rather read books than revise subjunctive.
This year, I read my way through books 4 to 6 of Plato Republic. I read several sections each Saturday morning from January through June, then took a summer break, and resumed my reading in November, reading both on Saturdays and on Sundays. I finished the last chapters of book 6 by reading every day over the Christmas break.
In spring, I read one of the earliest accounts of an epidemic, namely chapters 2.47–2.54 of ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian Warwhere he described the Plague of Athens, which devastated the city in the 5th century BC.
For 2021, my plan is to finish the remaining four books of the Republic, and move on to my beloved and difficult Thucydides after that.
My interest for German spiked with the corona crisis, as Germany was handling the crisis rather well and German epidemiologists were a good source of reliable information. I followed some of them on Twitter, listened to several Angela Merkel speeches, and read some articles. I also decided that improving German would be my priority in 2021.
I use French at work daily, and read some work-related stuff. I also followed French news and learned a couple of useful idiomatic expressions from my French colleagues.
I have not read a single book, but I followed the news, and spoke weekly with friends and acquaintances. This year, some of the most intellectually stimulating conversations I had were in Latvian.
I read some twenty books by the 19th, 20th, and 21st century writers, ranging from Lev Tolstoi and Mikhail Lermontov to Dina Rubina and Narine Abgaryan.
I read one book in Spanish at the beginning of the year, and many articles. After that, I followed some Spanish speakers on Twitter, and read an occasional article. I made several trips to Spain before the pandemics, when I managed to speak in Spanish in professional context.
Throughout the year, I followed with delight all news related to a rising star of Spanish literature, Irene Vallejo, whose book El infinito en el junco (‘Infinity in a reed’), about the invention of books in the ancient world, has been voted the Spanish book of the year 2020. Published in September 2019, the book is a bestseller: 26 editions, over 150 000 copies sold, multiple national awards, raving reviews, and translations rights to some 30 languages. I am a fan, and cannot wait to see how the world discovers this thoughtful and delicate writer.
In Spain, the book has been considered an antidote to the pandemics, as many readers reported the book gave them consolation in the times of darkness.
This year, I read fifty books in total, in English, Russian, Italian, Ancient Greek, and Spanish, and for me, too, reading was a star of light in the dark.
I spent the summer and early autumn in the countryside, where I decided to learn English idioms related to gardens, trees, plans, flowers, fences, and such. (All in a vain attempt to improve my English, stuck on a plateau for the last 15 years.)
The one expression I did not know before is ‘to lead somebody up the garden path’, meaning to deceive on purpose. This expression will surely come handy when I have to deal with a particularly manipulative business partner.
In general, I have a quick rule of thumb: if the same expression exists in the three languages that come to my mind most quickly (English, French, and Russian), it implies a common origin — Classical, Biblical, or literary. Here, the origin is Classical: ‘s’endormir sur ses lauriers’ or ‘se reposer sur ses lauriers’ in French, ‘почивать на лаврах’ in Russian, point out to Ancient Greece and its tradition to crown winners with laurel wreaths.
To lend colour to my English, I have been learning colour idioms. Am I chasing rainbows? Should I raise a white flag instead?
It all started out of the blue at a dinner last month, when I made a mistake in an idiomatic expression once in a blue moon. My dining companion, a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist and English native speaker, saw my mistake as a golden opportunity to tease me about my 25-year-long English plateau. I went red in the face and challenged him to tell me expressions for every colour of the rainbow, and we came up with a meagre list of five.
Every cloud has a silver lining. As my plan for improving English includes speaking more idiomatically, I decided to learn colour idioms.