The Grammarphobia Blog

Back in the day

(A new posting on “back in the day” appeared Sept. 12, 2012.)

Q: If you haven’t already addressed this subject, could you shed some light on the expression “back in the day.” Perhaps it maintains the illusion of youth – not sounding as fogy-like as “when I was young” or “years ago.”

A: The expression is derived from African-American or hip-hop slang dating back to the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as black teenage slang meaning, roughly, “once upon a time.”

I think its meaning is more nuanced than that, though. A WNYC listener once explained the phrase to me, and her explanation was so helpful that I’ll just share it with you:

“Those of us who grew up in the Bronx (or ‘da Bronx’) during the inception of hip hop use the phrase ‘back in da day’ to refer to the years (early 1980s) when we were pioneers molding and shaping hip-hop culture. In other words, the days when the boundaries were being pushed and we were making it up as we went along.

” ‘Da Day,’ at least for my age group, usually refers to the times of ‘old school rap’: Doug E Fresh, Slick Rick, Funky Four, Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash (whereas Run DMC would be at the tail end of old school).

“As the phrase spread, the white community seemed to use it to refer to its high school years or a ‘back in the day when I was cool’ kind of thing.

“Since I am a bit older (pushing 40), I think that this phrase may have taken on a different meaning for younger kids, but among those of us who participated in the intensely segregated culture of the late ’70s and early ‘80s, I think that we universally refer to those times.

“One other point: Although my generation really founded this phrase, we also use it to describe the ‘hard days’ of our parents and grandparents. Such as back in the days of the Civil Rights movement, or back in the days of Jim Crow, or back in the days when they lived in the islands.

“The important distinction is that ‘da day’ always refers to a significant period where people had to make the decision as to whether they were going to break through certain cultural boundaries or not.”

Thanks for the question, and I hope this helps.

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