August 11, 2019
Your father used to be a pretty good point guard back in the day.
I first heard this well-known and commonly used idiom in the 1990s through a rap song by Ahmad called, well, “Back in the Day.”
If this was the first time you’ve heard the saying, too, you might guess that it originated in the 1990s. However, this phrase in its current meaning might be much older.
What Does ‘Back in the Day’ Mean?
When someone says, “Back in the day …” they are talking about some time in the past, mainly their own past, and pointing out the differences between that time and the present. The person speaking is generally 30 years of age or older and talking about a time period that happened at least 20 years prior (Various). Usually, the phrase is used in a positive sense because the person looking back and fondly remembering something (“Back in the day”).
The expression’s general use might not point to a specific time period. In that way, “back in the day” is another way of saying “a long time ago” or “some time ago” (“How to Use”).
Sometimes, the phrase can be used ironically by a much younger person. The sarcasm is meant to poke fun at people’s collective short-term memory (Various).
Who First Used ‘Back in the Day’ in Its Modern Context?
Based on popular belief, the idiom originated with African-Americans, as attested by linguists and language writers like Margaret G. Lee and Geneva Smitherman.
A WYNC Listener’s Take
In late October 2007, the Grammarphobia writers answered a question about the origin of the expression “back in the day.” The writers said that the phrase originated in the African-American community as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s in reference to hip-hop.
One of the writers went on to quote a WNYC listener who said that young African-Americans in the Bronx used the expression “back in the day” to refer to the pioneers of rap because they were pushing boundaries and creating a new culture. The same generation would use the phrase to refer to the days of struggle for older generations — during times like the Civil Rights Movement, the days of Jim Crow, or days before certain Black Americans migrated from the islands.
Here’s a key part of the quote, at the end:
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.
Margaret G. Lee
Margaret G. Lee accredited Black Americans with the idiom in a 2001 comment on the Linguist List, the mailing list of the American Dialect Society.
In 2007, Smitherman, the author of Black Talk and a professor of English at Michigan State University, told language columnist William Safire that there were at least two usages of the phrase “back in the day” among African-Americans, similar to what the WNYC listener attested to:
When used by middle-aged and older members of the black speech community, ‘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.
She went on to say that the usage of “back in the day” by members of the Hip Hop Generation “generally refers to the beginning phase of Hip Hop Music and Culture, in the ’70s in the South Bronx.”
H. Samy Alim
H. Samy Alim, an anthropologist and sociolinguist at UCLA, also talked to Safire about the origin of the idiom but suggested that it may have been popularized by Ahmad’s song “Back in the Day” from the similarly titled 1994 album ( again, that is the first time I heard the expression).
However, there are earlier examples of the modern-day usage.
When Was This Idiom Coined, Then?
The modern usage of the phrase “back in the day” may date back to the 1960s in the United States, but it may have evolved from the phrase “back in the days,” which may date back to the 18th century.
Reverend Ebenezer Erskine
The earliest usage of the phrase “back in the days” that writers of the Grammarphobia blog found was spoken by the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine (1680-1754), a Scottish minister. In an undated sermon, he said “back in the days of Hezekiah …”
The following passage comes from Sermon XXII from the Reverend Ebenezer Erskine:
2dly [Secondly]. There is his kingdom of providence, whereby he upholds and governs all his creatures, and all their actions, making them subservient to his own glorious design. And here his government is not tied so down to the laws of nature, but he can counteract them whenever he has a mind: he can invert the order of nature, and stop and countermand his creatures from following their natural course; as when he stopped the motion of the sun in the days of Joshua, and made it return back in the days of Hezekiah; when he restrained the fire from consuming the three children, and the lions from tearing Daniel; and made the waters of the Red sea to stand up in heaps, till Israel had passed through, and the waters of Jordan to run back to their fountains. There is not any creature but is under the command of his providential kingdom and government. This his kingdom ‘ruleth over all things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth;’ angles, men, and devils, and all creatures above, or below, do his pleasure.
Carl Theodor von Unlanski
A latter passage with the same phrase comes from the 1816 biography of Eudoxia Lopukhina, written 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.
The Grammarphobia writers also found the phrase in The Blood Remembers (1941) by Helen Hedricks:
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.
The Modern Usage
The usage of the phrase that is similar to the way it is used today were found in two books, Married Men Make the Best Lovers (1967) by Ruth Dickson and The Blue Knight (1972) by Joseph Wambaugh.
This comes from Dickson advice book:
Yep, that’s all the IRS thought a spouse was worth back in the day.
This comes from Wambaugh’s crime novel:
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.
The earliest example of the phrase “back in the day” that the blog writers found in hip hop comes from a Beastie Boys song “Girls”:
Back in the day
There was this girl around the way.
So, the expression “back in the day” might not have originated in the African-American community, but it seems that it was popularized by African-Americans, particularly through Hip Hop. Today, though, the phrase is used in many different contexts, and mainly in a positive manner.
“Back in the day | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Web. Retrieved 7 Aug 2019. <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/back-in-the-day>.
“How to Use Back in the day Correctly.” Grammarist. Web. Retrieved 7 Aug 2019. <https://grammarist.com/usage/back-in-the-day/>.
Kellerman, Steward and O’Conner, Patricia T. “The Grammarphobia Blog: Back in the day.” Grammarphobia. 29 Oct 2007. Weblog. Retrieved 7 Aug 2019. <https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/10/back-in-the-day.html>.
Kellerman, Stewart and O’Conner, Patricia T. “The Grammarphobia Blog: Back in the day, revisited.” Grammarphobia. 12 Sept 2012. Weblog. Retrieved 7 Aug 2019. <https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/09/back-in-the-day-2.html>.
Various Authors. “Urban Dictionary: back in the day.” Urban Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 7 Aug 2019. <https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=back%20in%20the%20day>.The Whole Works of the Rev. Ebenezer Erskine, Minister of the Gospel at Stirling. Consisting of Sermons and Discourses, of Important and Interesting Subjects. Vol. 2. London: Williams Baynes and Son, Paternoster Row, and H.S. Baynes, Edingurgh. 1826. Print. Page 647.