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Over at German.SE we have a question involving "the darkest of nights". I would like to know what this expression actually means, but I didn't find it in an online dictionary (e.g. leo.org, dict.cc, Cambridge Dictionary).

So what does this expression mean? Is it a figure of speech? I can imagine at least two meanings: It's the time of a particular night when it is darkest, or it's the darkest of a (not specified) number of nights.

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What don't you understand from the dictionary definitions of those words? –  Matt Эллен Jan 17 '12 at 18:24
    
@Matt: I'm fluent enough in English to understand every single word - but that doesn't yet make the phrase clear to me. I'll expand the question to make it clearer. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 17 '12 at 18:36
    
+1 The expansion is better than the question. A fine distinction, indeed. –  Kris Jan 18 '12 at 5:47
    
@MattЭллен and the upvoter, I would have agreed, if I hadn't read mfg's answer below. It was blissful ignorance so far. –  Kris Jan 18 '12 at 5:54

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

German.SE was discussing superlatives (in the sense of grammar).

In that context, "the darkest of nights" simply means "a night darker than any other (of an unspecified number)."

You can use it in a literal sense, as in "it was the darkest of nights when the power grid failed and the moon was new."

Or, you can use it a figurative sense to convey that it was a night of great sorrow or some other sense of the word dark.

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OK, I understand the literal meaning of the superlative. What isn't clear to me is how and when the expression is used. Does your last sentence in plain language mean that it's a worn out figure of speech? –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 17 '12 at 18:57
    
I think it's an expression that's become so overused that it's almost become a cliche, likely to induce eye-rolling as the examples in that fiction contest. –  lindanaughton Jan 17 '12 at 19:01
    
@Lynn: Thanks for the confirmation. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 17 '12 at 19:03
    
This. The OP is looking for how the superlative is used in this case. +1. –  Robusto Jan 17 '12 at 19:47
    
@Hendrik Vogt, as to how and when the metaphorical expression is used, one might say that "When the Berlin Wall went up was one of the darkest of nights for Germany" –  Phoenix Jan 17 '12 at 20:10

I have seen this expression in literary texts. It means a very dark night, with no moonlight at all and it is used to enhance a feeling of foreboding. It can be called a hyperbole.

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The darkest of nights could be a metaphorical expression to mean the very worst of bad times. Of course it could be interpreted literally to mean the darkest night among many nights.

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It might be better to use both halves in answeering your question. The first half, "Dark Night" refers to period of personal upheaval or crisis. Both halves: Dark Night, Early Dawn (DNED) is a phrase whose usage probably best elucidates the fuller context behind what a Dark Night exactly is. Transpersonal Studies usage can be summed up in the following;

"Dark Night...", as in Dark Night, Early Dawn typically can be used to refer to a period of great spiritual testing and, when coupled with "...Early Dawn", transformation. For more you might gloss over the book Summary of central metaphor in Dark Night, Early Dawn

Frequently a Dark Night is a period in which the mettle of a given subject is tested to such an extent as to not only unwind the topical or superficial egoic structures of the person, but when harnessed the crisis energy can additionally be utilized to unwind and deconstruct the foundational and subterranean structures.

Also, the actual crisis or context may not objectively warrant such a description, but the diligence and energy channelled into the situation and egoic structures involved would be sufficient to be a Dark Night experience to the subject.

When used in the superlative, there is an understanding of the Darkest Night laying bare the subject's entire self as a collection of dis-integrated parts. There is, in the sense of the Early Dawn, an opportunity to collect these fragmented elements of the person and to integrate them into a more cohesive personhood.

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I suppose you may not have anticipated a new-age-y answer, but I thought some flavor text might add to your understanding. –  mfg Jan 17 '12 at 19:40
    
+1 If there was ever a useful answer, this is it. –  Kris Jan 18 '12 at 5:52
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I'm still a bit overtaxed by your answer, but thanks nevertheless! –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 18 '12 at 10:54

Literally, the phrase means a night that is darker than most nights, for example because it is a new moon, or clouds obscure the moon and stars. On such a night it may be difficult to see any danger until it is too late -- danger ranging from something on the ground that you trip over to wild animals or violent people attacking you. Thus such a night is considered scary. Thus figuratively the phrase can refer to a frightening time, like "When the dictator took over our country was plunged into the darkest of nights."

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The context or setting under which it is used is more likely to reveal its particular intention, which is to say that both your's and Irene's perceptions are all correct.

I could, however, argue that its nuances and the ensuing ambiguities are what makes it more beautiful than a precise substitute. It is for you to decide whether its poetic undertone and its literal insensibility are contextually more significant than any fixed meaning someone else may offer.

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The OP suggests two possible meanings, which are not equally correct. It would be very unlikely to mean "the time of a particular night when it is darkest" - we would have to say something like the darkest time of the night to get this across. Rather, "it's the darkest of a (not specified) number of nights" - the superlative meaning - is correct. It's true that it is commonly used as hyperbole, as Irene and others mention, to just mean it's a very dark night; why do you think that gives the phrase a "literal insensibility"? –  aedia λ Jan 17 '12 at 20:48
    
Its construction requests a personal viewpoint from the reader on what the darkest night might be. If the phrase were to describe a night precisely as per the author's intentions, the author would have chosen a different and more elaborate phrase. When one reads a phrase like "the greatest of..." or "the darkest of...," one immediately positions an image in one's mind of the object following "of." Using an ambiguous (uncertain, indifferent, insensible) phrase is a request for such a comparison or thought by the reader, more than a call for a precise description of the author's perception. –  John Jan 17 '12 at 21:28
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Thus, if you write "the darkest of nights," your objective must be to instill one or more thoughts or a pondering rather than any isolated author-specific perception of the particular night. It gives a poetic 'jolt', but does not set the scene too precisely. It allows the possibility that what the author leaves uncertain about the night is perhaps forthcoming. To me, the author's decision is one between precision and imprecision, which depend on the context and the author's objectives. –  John Jan 17 '12 at 21:41
    
Down voters better not be overenthusiastic and quick on the draw. –  Kris Jan 18 '12 at 5:50
    
I still have some difficulty understanding your answer, but your comments were very helpful indeed. –  Hendrik Vogt Jan 18 '12 at 16:34

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