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Why do we say "It's always darkest before the dawn"?

Well-Known Expressions

It's always darkest before the dawn

Meaning:

Things always seem to get worse before they get better - even in the worst of circumstances there is hope.

Background:

Sharing similarities to "there is light at the end of the tunnel", this expression has been with us since at least the late 17th century as English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller expresses the sentiment, "It is always darkest just before the day dawneth" in his travelogue of the Holy Land: A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof. Lest you wonder what a Pisgah is - in the Book of Deuteronomy, Pisgah is the top of the mountain that God ordered Moses to climb shortly before his death so as to see the "Promised Land."

But is it truly darkest before dawn or is this just one of those improving metaphors sent to put our teeth on edge?

First, a moment to clarify that dawn and sunrise are different things - dawn is the point when it is possible to detect light in the sky, sunrise is when the sun reaches the horizon (the time in between is twilight.) So, putting aside the vagaries of light from the moon and other celestial bodies, the darkest part of the night is after dusk and before dawn.

Incidentally, there are three different definitions of dawn:

  • Astronomical dawn, the point at which it is possible to detect light in the sky - 18° below the horizon
  • Nautical dawn, the point at which it is possible to see the horizon properly and distinguish some objects - 12° below the horizon
  • Civil dawn, the point at which there is sufficient light for activities to take place without artificial light - 6° below the horizon.

And, of course, the reverse for dusk.

More expressions and their source

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