There is a stereotypical idiom that a psychic will predict that 'you will meet a tall, dark stranger'. (It inspired the title of a 2010 Woody Allen film.)

An alternative variant is wishing to meet someone 'tall, dark and handsome'.

I have never been sure whether 'dark' in this context refers to skin colour, hair colour or something else.

In a related question, the origin is investigated, but the meaning is not examined: What's the origin of the stock phrase "tall, dark, and handsome"?

What is 'dark' referring to in this expression?

  • I've always assumed that it referred to hair color, eye color, and complexion. But it would be interesting to know what the original sense of the phrase was.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 21 '16 at 21:46
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    The following question is about the origin of the overall phrase; I think it gives some useful context: What's the origin of the stock phrase “tall, dark, and handsome”?
    – herisson
    Aug 21 '16 at 21:47
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    @sumelic: Interesting—and a partial overlap with Oddthinking's question. To judge from this Ngram graph, though, "tall dark stranger" appears to be considerably older than "tall dark and handsome."
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 21 '16 at 21:51
  • The earliest "tall, dark stranger" that Google Books acknowledges from the period 1700–1900 is the one in Hanna Maria Jones, The Forged Note: or, Julian and Marianne. A Moral Tale, Founded on Recent Facts (1824). The tds in that instance is said to possess a "fine though furrowed countenance."
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 21 '16 at 21:56
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    I don't think it should be closed as a duplicate. The top answers there give some good examples of early uses of the phrase, but they don't explain exactly why "dark" is used or what it means exactly (hair color alone, or overall complexion). The answers with lower scores do try to explain that, but most of them don't have any sources to back them up. Even after reading them, I'm still not sure what the answer to your question is. I would recommend editing your question instead to add a reference that post.
    – herisson
    Aug 21 '16 at 22:05

To a certain extent I don't think there is a conclusive answer to this question, but in the second example you give i.e. 'tall, dark and handsome' the word 'dark' seems to be about physical looks alone, literally tall, dark (eyes/hair/skin) and good-looking.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that 'dark' when referring to a person can mean skin, hair or eyes, so it could mean any, or all, of those three.

ODO: Dark (Of a person) having dark skin, hair, or eyes

In contrast I think 'dark stranger' not only refers to physical attributes but to a certain air of mysteriousness that this individual projects.

ODO: Dark 4. Hidden from knowledge; mysterious.

The 'dark stranger' is a trope in romantic fiction which I think draws on both meanings of 'dark' someone who is perhaps exotic-looking but also unknown, so in this sense attractive/exciting.

In Scotland, a tall, dark, stranger is a symbol of good luck in the tradition of first-footing.

The idea of the 'tall, dark stranger' mentioned by a psychic is probably this one.

However, in literature a 'dark stranger' can also be negative drawing on yet another meaning of 'dark':

ODO Dark: 3.3 Suggestive of or arising from evil; sinister

Examples in C19th literature of this mysterious/sinister idea include:

Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, though not traditionally handsome has 'great dark eyes, and very fine eyes too' and 'sable waves of hair', 'dark eyes and swarth skin' but holds a secret.

Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights who is described as a 'dark-skinned gypsy' with 'deep black eyes' and a 'handsome figure' but can also be seen as a sinister character.

  • Interesting that the first-footing Wikipedia page explicitly refers to dark-haired. Aug 22 '16 at 3:44
  • Yes, that's a good point, in all the cases above, including first-footing, I think the person would most likely have dark hair, but in some cases they might have dark eyes and/or skin too. So yes, dark hair should probably be assumed?
    – rhm
    Aug 22 '16 at 7:33

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