The darkest hour


What's the meaning of the phrase 'The darkest hour'?

The darkest hour is the time when bad events are at their worst and most dispiriting.

What's the origin of the phrase 'The darkest hour'?

The expression ‘the darkest hour’ came into widespread use in early 19th century England. However, the usage of the phrase that has more recently become popular originated well before that, in the proverb ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn‘. A version of the proverb was recorded by Thomas Fuller in A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof, 1650:

It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth.

‘The Darkest Hour’ is the title of a 2017 WWII film drama starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill. The film alludes to the apparently imminent defeat of the British as their ‘darkest hour’ and, although this might sound like a Churchillian turn of phrase there is no record of him having coined it in any of his copiously recorded speeches or writings. It was used in a letter to Churchill from Clement Attlee, who became the British Prime Minister shortly before the Japanese surrender in 1945. Attlee gave Churchill due credit as the UK’s war leader:

“I feel that the probability of the surrender of our last enemy is so great that I must, at once, offer to you, our leader from the darkest hours through so many anxious days, my congratulations on this crowning result of your work.”

It can certainly be said that, as far as Britain was concerned, ‘the darkest hour was just before the dawn’. Churchill referred to the war years of the British people as their ‘finest hour:

…If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Trend of the darkest hour in printed material over time

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

Gary Martin

Writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.