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?

Paul F.

I always liked "It's always darkest just before it goes pitch black"

Joshua Northey

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.


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?


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


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.

Benny Armanto

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

B. Norton

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.

Joe B

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.


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.


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.


Where does the mind- blowing, state-of-the-art, intriguing quote "Once you go black, you never go back" come from?

John Davidson

I am often up before sunrise and as the year progresses that gets a little earlier or a little later each day. I think the phrase is a reflection on the past (while talking about the future) because almost by definition as the world revolves the dawn would be considered the point where things start to look brighter You could also say metaphorically that often in life everything seems to be going wrong until some small things starts to look not so bad and you are encouraged. Looking backwards that is how it happens to most of us--we can't get a job or get a sale, or a lover then finally we get one and everything starts to look up.

Eric M. Jones.

The ground radiates the heat it's absorbed back out into space during the night, allowing the temperature to drop to its lowest point at dawn before the sun comes up again to restart the process.

So it certainly is not darkest just before the dawn, but it sure is the coldest and most miserable. If you're up all night in some sort of anguish, then the cold just makes it worse.


A Korean friend asked me to explain the expression "the chickens are coming home to roost." I told him it meant suffering the consequences of one's actions, but I couldn't explain why it meant that.

By the way, anything you can do to get politicians to stop saying "kick the can down the road" would be most appreciated.


"The earliest citation for the expression given by the OED is from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor..."

I've always wondered why that Shakespeare is considered such a great playwright. His work's nothing but a mass of cliches :-)

Which is something I wonder at, now and then: how many of what are now cliches & common sayings are, like "The world's my oyster", in fact original to Shakespeare?

Joshua Northey

I am sure almost none of them are original to Shakespeare. They were just the day to day stories and sayings of his time. His usage is the is the first *published/recorded* instance of them, which is why he gets the attribution.

Shakespeare gets a lot of credit because he was first. The actual work is not really any better then daytime soap operas. But for a while Shakespeare was the main example of dramatic prose, so good dramatic prose came to be defined by what he had done. Sort of like the "problem of God's goodness".

If you could somehow scrub Shakespeare from the historical record and re-release his stuff today 90% of the people who love it would find it forgettable if not downright bad. The power early exemplars hold in the filed of letters is immense.


I don't agree at all. The plots, sure, but the use of language? Few modern-day writers would even try - it'd be like expecting a fugue from a rock band.


Like others, the saying makes sense to me. As soon as it begins going from darker to lighter dawn has arrived.


I've always taken it as a parallel to F Scott Fitzgerald's "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning".


Along the lines of "darkest just before the dawn", why does the phrase "head over heels" refer to the opposite of what is literally true?