Defy and define the darkness

What it looks like outside my office window right now. Picture source:
What it looks like outside my office window right now. Picture source:

Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.

–Anne Frank, from

Adam Gopnik, the best expositor of the American experience in France for my money, says in his book Paris To The Moon that the main difference between New York and Paris is that Paris is at a much more northern latitude, and therefore the days of darkness are much longer in wintertime in Paris than in New York. This has its disadvantages: I find that the darkness sucks the life and energy out of me. In the Paris summertime, I am out and about constantly. In contrast, in the wintertime, it’s pretty much what Parisians call métro, boulot, dodo for me–go to work, come home, eat, read for a bit, and then to sleep.  Not the most exciting life.

There’s a plus side to the short days, though: in wintertime in Paris, I never miss a sunrise. Every morning, riding the train to the southern suburb where I work, I watch the sun break over the horizon and get a shot of beauty in my morning. Quite lovely, really.

We talked about words for sunrise, sunset, etc. in a previous post, so let’s focus on words for darkness, instead.  (Definitions from

  • l’obscurité (f.): darkness, e.g. after sunset.
  • les ténèbres: darkness, but literary or figurative.

To check the difference between these, I just pointed out the window–it’s 5:42 PM here, and literally as black as night–and asked my office mate what to call it.  Obscurité, he said.  [Crap–this means that I’ve been using the wrong word for “darkness” for the past year and a half.]  He came up with the word tenebrous as an English cognate (I didn’t know how to pronounce it, either–turns out the stress goes on the first syllable), and remarked that French has not just the noun, but also an adjective, ténébreux.  He explained that the adjective is an interesting word because in addition to meaning things like “gloomy,” which you would expect, it can actually be positive when applied to a human–it connotes a certain power and mystery.

To the symphony tonight–must defy the #%^*! darkness. 

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