Is it Really Darkest Just Before the Dawn?

I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Georgia asked:

“where does the saying ‘the world is your oyster’ come from?”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is an allusion to “the possibility of finding a pearl in an oyster” and means “one is in a position to profit from the opportunities that life, or a particular situation, may offer.”  The earliest citation for the expression given by the OED is from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: “Why then the world’s mine Oyster, which I, with sword will open.”

Photo: Li-Ji

Josh asked:

“I always get annoyed by people who say, ‘It’s always darkest just before the dawn,’ usually said to cheer somebody up who’s down on their luck with hope of better times.  I’d prefer people either offer a unique thought or something that makes scientific sense. Where did this horrible quote come from?”

A great question, Josh, one that has long vexed me. We all understand the metaphorical point of this proverb, but proverbial metaphors usually play off of commonly accepted realities.  It’s just not a reality that it’s always darkest just before the dawn.  According to The Yale Book of Quotations, the earliest known version of the saying is in Thomas Fuller‘s, A Pisgah Sight of Palestine (1650) (“It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth”), but that doesn’t help us with the puzzing question of why it arose.  Can any reader suggest an explanation?

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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  1. Paul F. says:

    I always liked “It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black” http://www.despair.com/despair.html

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      Me too. Even more hilarious is the “It is always darkest right before it goes completely black” quote that is (I am sure falsely) attributed to Mao.

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  2. Fred says:

    I always thought that this saying (Darkest before the dawn) made perfect sense. I believe it assumes “dawn” to be the very beginning of the sky getting lighter in the east (i.e., the Sun is starting to come around.. or us around it, but you know what I mean), and the sky starts to get just a LITTLE bit brighter than it was previously.

    If that is how we define the start of “dawn”, then the statement is likely true – at no point in the night will it get darker than just before the sky in the east begins to get a bit lighter.

    Other thoughts?

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    • Mike says:

      Moonrise varies throughout the moon’s cycle, so sometimes the moon will begin to light the sky shortly before dawn.

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 13 Thumb down 16
      • George Hafiz says:

        But the moon would have been there all night anyway. Besides, ‘dawn’ is defined as the appearance of light before the sunrise so I think it’s widely accepted the moon has nothing to do with the brightness of the sky due to dawn.

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      • Sara says:

        George, the moon is not always there all night. It rises and sets like the sun. Sometimes the moon becomes visible during the afternoon, sometimes it doesn’t show up until after it has become dark. If the moon rises later in the night, it’s possible that it was actually darker during the period before the moonrise than the period before the dawn.

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    • Cameron says:

      This is exactly right – and to help make the point, have you heard the joke: “How far can a dog run into the woods?” The answer – “Half Way”

      The idea is exactly the same. Things can only get so bad before getting better / there are points that are the *end* of a direction for each journey (i.e. what goes up must come down). That “apex,” as it were, is being described with this famous message.

      It is always darkest before the dawn – Well, duh. :) It can only get so dark before ANY amount of light is brighter. That “apex” must come before dawn (simply by definition of what dawn is). Bam, undeniable proof.

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      • Cameron says:

        Sorry… forgot to clarify the joke about the dog – It can only run “half way” into the woods, because then it is no longer running *in* but is, instead, running *out* of the woods.

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      • Piotr says:

        Look for any dictionary definition of the word dawn; almost no one considers your definition to be the word dawn. If you really stretch and manipulate the meaning of words then you can make any statement true. Is that really indicative of the truth of the statement, or is it more indicative of how much you have to redefine words into various extremes (dawn now occurring at around midnight according to you) in order to make nonsensical statements make sense?

        Its just a silly word game you’re playing. By any *reasonable* definition, this quote makes no sense

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  3. IMakeStuffUp says:

    It’s a well established scientific fact that prior to the 20th century, the sun actually experienced “brown outs” prior to gaining full power just before daytime. These “brown outs” were characterized as “dark” because the concept of “brown” was not invented until the late 1890s. This problem was corrected in either 1899 or 1901 when Thomas Edison was able to re-wire the sun’s circuitry (dates vary depending on the Wikipedia article).

    Looking forward to seeing this widely disseminated.

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  4. Benny Armanto says:

    Maybe. The darkest just before the dawn refers to human feeling. Imagine that you were in a condition where you’re have no more hope. that you are prefer to end your life. This feeling sometimes are too serious to be seen. We must feel it deeply enough to understand it.

    This quotation might refers to healing process, that every good things that are going to happen always has a bitter taste right before you taste it, and that is the true healing process.

    Just my opinion. :D

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  5. B. Norton says:

    Though it is not objectively darkest just before dawn, subjectively it may seem so.

    One who has been up through a whole night, especially a winter’s night, has been well-immersed in darkness by the time the moments before dawn arrive. If darkness is a metaphor for a person’s fear, suffering, or grief, such long experience will have written its pain deeply on the person as the night draws to a close. Thus, the worst, or “darkest” moments will come just before dawn.

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  6. Joe B says:

    Although I don’t know the source of the quote, “It’s always darkest just before the dawn,” I would suggest it to be scientifically accurate, or at least as accurate as we can ever take generalized (albeit encouraging) statements such as these!

    The dictionary defines dawn as “the FIRST appearance of light in the sky BEFORE sunrise.” By this definition, we can conclude that even the smallest, most incalculable measure of refracted sunlight treading into the night sky in the wee hours of morning is actually dawn. Any moment BEFORE the morning sunlight begins accumulating in the sky is “before the dawn.” This would indicate that “before the dawn,” is, in fact, the darkest time of night, since we can assume that this moment occurs before any of the morning light arrives, and occurs after any light from twilight leaves the sky.

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    • Piotr B. says:

      But then you run into a contradiction – because if you’re saying that” the most incalculable measure of refracting sunlight treading into the night sky” can be reclassified as a type of “dawn”, then it doesn’t even matter what time of the night it is, because there will always be some very small amount of sunlight that refracts through the atmosphere to your location. That is, there is no such thing as “before” dawn as dawn itself has no clear definition because it never begins anywhere.

      The only way for this to make sense is to define a precise moment when the intensity of light observed exceeds a certain value. But by any reasonable metric used, this would (at most) only be an hour before actual daybreak. Clearly this is not the darkest part of the night.

      Now you might follow your approach to define some time in the night which has the minimum intensity of refracted light from the other side of the globe, and take the dawn to be the infinitesimally small fraction of time after that point. But that’s why I say above any reasonable definition. How many people would you really expect to take the definition of “dawn” to be the most minutely measurable increase from the absolute minimum of light detectable by scientific instruments, rather than 30 minutes before the sun appears? It wasn’t meant to be understood that way, and if it was then its horribly confusing and poorly explained.

      Besides all this it varies depending on whether the moon is fully visible or not. In some cases it might actually be darkest at 3 AM, in others at 12 AM (and obviously your location on the globe). But generally speaking, I think its categorically false to say that its darkest before the dawn.

      And if its meant to be used as an analogy with respect to human suffering, why did they use one that’s so confusing? The whole thing is just a bunch of nonsense. I think if anything its some sort of psychological trick that some guy in the 17th century wasn’t aware of, and for some reason its been repeated without thought for two centuries since then.

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      • Chris says:

        The phrase ‘darkest before the dawn’ does not make scientific sense.

        The darkest part of night would be the opposite time of the sun being in the highest part of the sky on the side of the earth facing the sun at that time. This is when the least amount of light can refract back into the atmosphere on the ‘dark side’ of the earth.

        Example, if high sun in Beijing, China is 1p, in Argentina (opposite side) of the world) the darkest part of the night would be around 1a. Any time on either side of 1am in Argentina would actually be closer to the sun, therefore more light would be able to refract, making it ‘lighter’ outside.

        The saying I am familiar with is ‘always coldest before the dawn’. Which is actually accurate scientifically.

        Hope this helps.

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  7. James says:

    Might be just a matter of definition. If dawn is defined as beginning when it starts to get lighter, then (obviously, to some of us) it must be darkest just before dawn.

    Kind of like defining people in the lowest quintile of incomes as “the poor”, and then wondering why we never make any progress at eliminating poverty.

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  8. McCord says:

    It’s hard to make a scientific case that it is physically darkest just before dawn. Overnight darkness can be affected by moonlight. On some nights, it will be brightest just before dawn.

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