The Grammarphobia Blog

Back in the day, revisited

Q: When and why did “back in the day” come into popular use in reference to a cool time in the past? I don’t remember hearing it at all in the ’70s.

A: You don’t remember hearing this use of “back in the day” in the 1970s because it wasn’t heard much until the ’80s. However, it was around in the ’60s and ’70s. And similar phrases date back to the early 1800s.

We wrote a posting in 2007 about the use of the expression to refer, often nostalgically, to a period in the past. But five years is a long time in popular usage, so this calls for an update.

Let’s begin by pointing out that the phrase “back in the day” has been around since at least the 1940s, and the phrase “back in the days” has been around a lot longer, since the 18th century.

But in those earlier usages, “back in the day” and “back in the days” were part of larger phrases that mentioned specific periods in the past.

Here’s an example of this earlier use of “back in the day” from The Blood Remembers, a 1941 novel by Helen Hedricks, wife of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf:

“I was back in the day when his father was buried, and the bright sun was killing the purple asters in Sam’s bent hands.”

And here’s a much earlier example of “back in the days” from an 1816 biography of Eudoxia Lopukhina, the first consort of Peter the Great, by Carl Theodor von Unlanski:

“The human race had learned to write — to make impressions with objects which are the equivalents of writer’s tools — away back in the days when the cuneiform folk put their marks into stones, and the cave men of prehistoric France daubed colored hieroglyphics.”

We found an even earlier example (“back in the days of Hezekiah”) in an undated sermon among the collected writings of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, a Scottish minister who lived from 1680 to 1754.

But you’re asking about plain “back in the day,” a phrase that stands alone and refers to a period in the past but doesn’t mention a specific period.

This clipped phrase has popped up all over the place in the last couple of decades. It’s done so much popping, in fact, that the phrase has got the attention of lexicographers at standard dictionaries.

The Cambridge Dictionaries Online, for example, defines the expression this way: “used for talking about a time in the past, usually when you are remembering nice things about that time.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says “back in the day” (occasionally “days”), especially in African-American usage, means “in the past” or “some time ago.”

The OED has four citations for the published use of the expression. The earliest example is a lyric from a hip-hop song, “Girls,” recorded by the Beastie Boys in 1986: “Back in the day / There was this girl around the way.”

The phrase also cropped up in a 1994 issue of the magazine Vibe: “Back in the day there were Josephine Baker, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne.”

And the novelist Richard Price used it in his mystery Freedomland (1998): “Jesse had known one of them from back in the day.”

The OED’s most recent example is from The Nannie Diaries (2003), by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus: “One drunken night when your buddies from ‘back in the day’ called me a ho.”

You say you don’t remember hearing “back in the day” in the 1970s. We’ve done a bit of poking around in Google Books and found some examples from the ’70s, including this one from Joseph Wambaugh’s 1972 crime novel The Blue Knight:

“Around the LAPD it was said that mobbed-up former Soviets were more dangerous and cruel than the Sicilian gangsters ever were back in the day.”

In fact, our spot check of Google Books even found a couple of examples from the ’60s, including this one from Ruth Dickson’s 1967 advice book Married Men Make the Best Lovers:

“Yep, that’s all the IRS thought a spouse was worth back in the day.”

The earliest examples of the clipped usage that we could find are from white writers like Wambaugh and Dickson. And the first use of the phrase in hip-hop music seems to be from the song mentioned above by the Beastie Boys, a white band.

But some linguists and language writers have suggested that the phrase may have originated among African Americans.

The linguist Margaret G. Lee, for example, said in a 2001 comment on the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society, that “Back in the day originated in the African-American community.”

Geneva Smitherman, author of Black Talk and a distinguished professor of English at Michigan State University, told the language columnist William Safire in 2007 that the expression is used differently by different groups of African Americans.

“When used by middle-aged and older members of the black speech community,” she said, “ ‘back in the day refers to the 1960s and often reflects a kind of nostalgic longing for a historical moment when there was a very strong black unity.”

But when “used by members of the Hip Hop Generation,” Smitherman said, “it generally refers to the beginning phase of Hip Hop Music and Culture, in the ’70s in the South Bronx.”

H. Samy Alim, an anthropologist and sociolinguist at UCLA, suggested to Safire that the expression may have been popularized by the rapper Ahmad’s 1994 album (and title song) Back in the Day.

A bit of googling, however, indicates that the expression in its new sense was well established by the late 1980s, years before Ahmad’s album was released.

Interestingly, Ahmad (Ahmad Ali Lewis) uses “back in the day” and “back in the days” in the three versions of the title song on the album. And he uses them in the old as well as the new sense. Here’s an example of the plural phrase used both ways:

Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore
But some days I sit and wish I was a kid again
Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore
But some days I sit and wish I was a kid again
Back in the days

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