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?


Bill

Around a banked fire, the fire will dim as the night wears on. Around the fire, it could be darker nearer to dawn than earlier when there was less sunlight. Since fire was the main human source of light during the night until fairly recently, perhaps this is a phrase which historically was more accurate.

Niranjan

Hey Fred,

I have looked around and I think the origin is referred to in a book by Samuel Lover (1847) which is an old Irish saying - "Remember," they say, "that the darkest hour of all. is the hour before day.""

Link below. Cheers!
http://books.google.com/books?id=ywQNAAAAYAAJ&q=darkest+hour+of+all#v=snippet&q=darkest%20hour%20of%20all&f=false

Hansa

Maybe "darkest" somehow got mixed up with "coldest", since it's coldest before dawn.

kelly wendel

I think it was Hermann Goehring, head of the WWII German Luftwaffe who used that phrase, around 1945.

JSN

The air glows you can see your hand silhouetted against the night sky when there is no moon. About half of the light is from stars and the rest is light emitted by the gases in the atmosphere. However it is not true that "It is always darkest before dawn" because the airglow shows about a three to one variation that depends to some degree on the sunspot cycle.

avi

"darkest before dawn" is an old Jewish concept. It's a statement in a Jewish book from the 1200s, that evil is strongest, just before the light of Gd appears. (Mostly related to Jewish ideas of Messiasm) It might be pulled from the Bible which says "it was evening and it was morning."

I would suggest looking into those sources for its actual origin.

Jay K

A friend recently quoted the Washington Post as saying "Follow the money" during the Watergate days. I thought it was just a line from the movie "All the President's Men". But is the phrase older than that?

Ralph Forsyth

Hello! I would like to know if Mark Twain actualy said this:
"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."

If so what was the context?
If you could help me I would be really grateful!

steve simone

there are three times in the bible when it gets dark in the day. 1) during the plagues in egypt. 2) when jesus is on the cross. 3) during the tribulation (still future).
after all of those occurances there is a freedom from bondage.
1st) israel is freed from slavery. 2nd) christ dies for the sins of the world, thus freeing those who believe in him. 3rd) creation is freed from the bondage of the curse god put on it in the garden.
so here we have dark, literally and metaphorically before light.

Nat

Hi, Do you know the origins of this quote "You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great". Thanks.

Tim

Just a guess, but I think it has to do with battles. As armies always waited for dawn's daylight to attack, the beginning of battle was always the darkest meaning dreaded.

Chris

It makes perfect sense... if you define dawn as the moment the night begins to lighten, even by the tiniest margin, then of course the night would be darkest before the dawn.

Joyce

Perhaps this saying, "always darkest before the dawn" is based in science in that there is a sometimes period of time in he morning when the moon has set but the sun has nt yet risen .....just a thought :)

Patricia

The proverb I believe is meant as encouragement to someone going through a difficult time. It is meant to say hold on because your breakthrough may be just around the corner, whether you believe in God or not. satan or forces of evil or whatever you believe to be bad in this universe may be working against you, so that you will quit, knowing that your deliverance or that bad time your are going through is going to end. That's how I see it.

Jas

It makes sense to me - what is before dawn? Night!! And every night eventually ends with what? Dawn!! So there you go - its darkest at night, but eventually you will reach the dawn.

Obviously the phrase is drawing a parallel to difficult times ending with new, "brighter", happier times. One can also interpret it as darkness of difficult change leading to something brand new, positive, and worthwhile.

Benedict

I think that people should stop misusing this phrase. I will just tell the person who is in trouble that difficulties are like being in a darkness, go out and see the sunshine. Toughen up and get over it.

William Pietrak

Since it is not "darkest before the dawn" I think that it was created as a metaphore by someone who pondered a question all night, because their delimma would not let them sleep. Yet with the dawn some insight, or change of circumstances brought about a resolution.

Now to pursue the origin.

felipe

I just recently became annoyed by this quote as a new batch of songs proclaiming it have started playing on the radio. Still I think that there's just so much emotional power in our experience of light and dark that we need a *simple* way to associate with the night/day cycle with our emotions.

Having been through more than my share of cycles of despair I know that occasionally we are brought out of that state by a sort of epiphany... a dawning. In any case that's how we'd like to leave that state, and I don't think anybody seriously thinks of such an epiphany as a gradual, even barely perceptible, lightening. In fact I don't think anybody actually really thinks of dawn as the very first lightening. Isn't that what the word "twilight" is for? For that matter there are three "twilights", astronomical, nautical and civil. Perhaps nautical would be the closest twilight this earlier concept of "dawn" that some posters are searching for--it is when the horizon line appears and suddenly a reference for navigation.

Now, with that said there is something incredibly sublime to feel that infinitesimal lightening out of astronomical twilight both as you sit in the night and as you begin to surface from depression... but really who wants to try setting that the three chords? And who wants to hear "it's really dark now, but wait for the earth to rotate 18 degrees and your world will flood with light!"

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Ian

Surely the saying should be it's always darkest at midnight on the winter solstice when it also happens to be a new moon.