What's the Origin of the Phrase "The Eleventh Hour"?
By Bryan Dugan
“Aliens began to take over, prompting Morgan Freeman to step up during the eleventh hour to save the world.” That’s just one instance where you’ll hear someone use "the eleventh hour" in reference to a just-in-the-nick-of-time, last possible moment before the result of some often-dire event. But just where did the phase come from?
The cliché might originate from the Bible, specifically Matthew 20:9: “And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour they received every man a denarius.” The passage is a reference to the fact that the workers who took over at the eleventh hour of a 12-hour workday received just as much pay at those who had already been working all day.
But in Cliches: Over 1500 Phrases Explored and Explained, author Betty Kirkpatrick writes that other than the wording, there’s “no obvious connection” to the Bible entry. Even Eric Partridge, in 1940’s A Dictionary of Cliches, writes that the phrase is "no longer apprehended as an allusion to the parable of the labourers, of whom the last ‘were hired at the eleventh hour.’"
The phrase really started to take off in the 19th century, but was used earlier than that, and some scholars have even narrowed a specific time for the eleventh hour down to the time between 5 and 6 p.m., because the typical workday was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—or sunrise to sunset. Whether or not the Bible housed the phrase’s original meaning, it is now an allusion to something that happens at the last possible moment.