Famous Sayings: #4 — ‘A Friend in Need…’

April 3, 2016

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

friend, a friend in need is a friend indeed, Everyman

My search for the origin of this idiom took me back to The Phrase Finder. Sorry, but my post will be heavily influenced by it. But before I get into the research, I will admit that I thought of two possible meanings. Now, there are four — yes, 4 — possible meanings given from the first page I’ll link to.

Is There a Clear Origin?

Not from what I read, although there are a number of sources to consider. Gary Martin cites all these sources on The Phrase Finder page entitled, “The meaning and origin of the expression: A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

The first source is an ancient saying that is close to the current saying, when translated from Latin. It’s credited to Quintus Ennius in the 3rd century B.C. Ennius wrote, “Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur.” That translates to “A sure friend is known when in difficulty” in English.

Mr. Martin also cites the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations in saying that the publication traced back the earlier usage of the saying in the 11th century. However, I have no access to a physical copy and the online viewing is restricted to those with subscriptions and those who have made a purchase.

The third source Gary Martin points to William Caxton’s Sonnes of Aymon (1489). Martin himself found a version of the phrase in the work:

It is sayd, that at the nede the frende is knowen.

(Note: The title of the work is adapted to “Sons of Aymon.” I was able to find a version of the work on the Internet Archive.)

The fourth source Martin cites is the morality play Everyman, which has no certain date but has been placed in the 15th century by various scholars. (A script can be found on Fordham University’s website and an audio version is on the Internet Archive.) From the play come these lines:

Fellowship: Sir, I say as I will do in deed.
Everyman: Then be you a good friend at need;
I have found you true here before.

The proverb was also recorded in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes (1562). For those inclined to see a source, I was also able to find this on the Internet Archive website. However, it’s translated as Proverbs of John Heyward, and I found the quote Mr. Martin uses on page 80. The lines in question read:

Prove1 thy friend ere2 thou have need; but in deede,
A friend is never knowne till a man have neede.
Before I had neede, my most present foes
Seemed my most friends, but thus the world goes.

  1. In this case, “Prove” means “to test.”
  2. If you’ve read Shakespeare and other plays in and translated to Olde English, you know “ere” means before.

Just What Is the True Meaning?

That’s not quite clear especially given how there is uncertainty about the origin and the different interpretations from the various sources listed.

From the page on The Phrase Finder, there are four possible meanings given:

1. A friend, (when you are) in need, is indeed a true friend. (‘indeed’)
2. A friend, (when you are) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (‘in deed’)
3. A friend, (who is) in need, is indeed a true friend. (‘indeed’)
4. A friend, (who is) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (‘in deed’)

I would initially agree with Version 1 and I have considered Version 3, although that seemed very odd.

Entrees from the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries seem to agree with Interpretation 1, as well.

From the Cambridge Dictionaries Online:


› This means that a friend who helps you when you really need help is a true friend.

From the Oxford Dictionary:

proverb A person who helps at a difficult time is a truly reliable person.

However, let’s look closer at the sources provided in the above section:

  • Ennius’ quote is ambiguous at best, but it could be used to support Versions 1 & 2.
  • I would say the same for Caxton’s quote.
  • Given the context from Everyman, the excerpt would support Version 2.
  • Gary Martin himself tends to lean toward the Version 2.

So, as you can see, there’s an issue of parsing. We are free to use either of the first two versions, but given the evidence, the second one is probably correct.

Does this Saying Hold up Today?

You don’t need me to tell you that it does. I have seen the principle understanding of this axiom at work with my own eyes. Your true friends will do things to help you in your greatest time of need. Even if they have to take a hardship, they will come through for you.

Yes, hardships will show you who your real friends are. Have you ever lent someone money only for them not to return it to you, even though they can pay it back and especially when you really need it back? That person is not your friend, but a jerk. Have you ever given someone rides only for them not to return the favor although they can but make up some lame excuse about needing gas? You tell them you could give them gas money, but then they say it’s too far out. That person is also a jerk. Others might gossip about your struggles without offering to help and you might even come across another neighbor/colleague who says this:

“Oh, I hear you’ve been going through some hard times. I’ll pray for you.”


Anyway, yeah…this is not to say that you need to depend on your friends, but good people don’t just let those close to them suffer when they can help.

Works Cited

Caxton, William. The Right Pleasant and Godly Historie of the Foure Sonnes of Aymon. 1490. Print (Originally in French).

“Definition of ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’ – English Dictionary.” Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University Press. Web. Found 3 Apr 2016. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/a-friend-in-need-is-a-friend-indeed>.

“Definition of a friend in need is a friend indeed in English.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Web. Found 3 Apr 2016. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/a-friend-in-need-is-a-friend-indeed>.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: Everyman, 15th Century.” Fordham University. 1998. Web. Found 3 Apr 2016. <http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/everyman.asp>.

Martin, Gary. “The meaning and origin of the expression: A friend in need is a friend indeed.” The Phrase Finder. 1996-2016. Web. Found on 27 March2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-friend-in-need.html>.

Reeder, F. (by Digital Transfer via the British Broadcasting Company; 1956). “EVERYMAN – Late 15th-century morality play.” Internet Archive. Audio. Found 3 Apr 2016. <https://archive.org/details/EVERYMAN-Late15th-centuryMoralityPlay>.

“The right plesaunt and goodly historie of the foure sonnes of Aymon.” Internet Archive. Found on 3 April 2016. <https://archive.org/details/rightplesauntno4400caxtuoft>.

Sharman, Julian. The Proverbs of John Heywood. George Bell and Sons: York Street, Covent Garden (London). 1874. P. 80. Print. Found 3 Apr 2016.


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