Here’s a folk expression you might know: “The darkest hour comes just before the dawn”.
And here’s a common criticism of it that you might also know: “Actually, it starts to get light before the dawn, actually, so that statement’s nonsense, because, actually, the hour before the dawn is when it’s actually starting to get light, actually.”
Not all versions of the criticism will abuse the word actually in this way. For example, I was reading The Horologicon – the latest offering from the heroic Mark Forsyth, word-nerd-in-chief – earlier today, and he expresses the same sentiment in a much more literate manner:
There’s an old saying that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. However, that’s utter tosh. If you get out of bed and peek through the window, you will see a pale glow in the east. But don’t, whatever you do, actually get out of bed. It’s probably chilly and you’ll never get your posture in bed (technically called your decubitus) quite right again.
That’s a typically Forsythian passage, in that all those other workaday words are just there to provide a gently amusing introduction to the one he thinks we might not have heard before: decubitus. I’ve only just started on The Horologicon, but from what I can tell it’s a worthy successor to The Etymologicon (I’ve already learned that gleek was a word long before its homograph, Gleek, was portmanteaued into existence by fans of a US TV show), and I heartily recommend you read either, or both.*
But to return to my main point: it’s not the ‘old saying’ that’s tosh, it’s the confident assertion that ‘you will see a pale glow in the east’ before the dawn. This is tosh because the ‘pale glow in the east’ is the dawn.
Sometimes people get confused, and assume that dawn refers to the moment the sun breaks the horizon – but the correct name for this moment is sunrise, not dawn. And sometimes people get confused in a different way, and assume that the dim sort of light you get while the sun is still below the horizon is the dawn, but the correct name for that kind of dim light is twilight (despite what most people think, twilight isn’t a purely end-of-day phenomenon). This means that, if dawn isn’t twilight, and if it isn’t sunrise, then there’s only one other thing it can be: the thing that happens after darkness and before twilight – the first appearance of light in the sky. In other words, people who dismiss the folk saying on the basis that there is light in the sky before the dawn are mistaken: the light in the sky, the ‘pale glow’, that they think happens before the dawn is in fact the earliest part of the dawn.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the folk saying is correct. The darkest period of the night will vary according to several factors. For example, the weather will have a big impact – the darkest part of the night will often be the part of the night when the cloud is thickest (unless you live in or close to a big city, in which case the light from street-lights reflecting off low cloud might make cloudy nights brighter than clear ones). Astronomical factors will also play a big role, most notably the matter of when the moon rises and sets.
In the UK at the moment (at least in those semi-mythical parts of the UK untroubled by clouds), the darkest point – when neither the sun nor the moon are putting any light in the sky – is occurring in the earliest part of the night. Somehow, though, the expression “the darkest hour comes while you’re watching prime-time telly” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
* – Part of me feels that a ‘homograph’ ought to be a gay porn photo, in the same way that part of me feels a ‘homophone’ ought to be a mobile that has Grindr on it.