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Since my childhood, I have been told about this phrase/idiom by my teachers, friends and parents. Since now I see everything written in English microscopically, this seems perplexed to me.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Think about two friends - Jack and Jill. Now, if Jack is in need, does he become friend indeed? Keeping Jack as main person, where is Jill described? The former 'friend' or the latter? Or this is written keeping ONLY ONE PERSON in mind? No second person (as a friend) is required?

Furthermore, the adverb indeed is described as the word used to emphasize a statement or response confirming something already suggested. Then...

Jack is Jill's friend if (and only?) he's in need (of hers?) all the time!

Does the idiom require comma or an additional word somewhere to make it clearer? Like this -

A friend, who comes (and probably helps) when you need, is a friend indeed.

How the original is grammatical?

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  • to make it even simpler - A friend in need is a friend indeed. - Are we talking about two persons here or just one?
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:16
  • 4
    It's grammatical, but it is ambiguous. The casual reader or listener would not guess that this part is left out "A friend [when you are] in need..." or "A friend in [times of] need..." Commented Feb 17, 2015 at 7:56

6 Answers 6

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This proverb is also common in my first language. Perhaps they were derived from the same origin. In any case, the one in my first language is very clear, and can be translated back as:

[A friend (when you're) in need] is [a friend indeed],

where in need means "in tough times", and a friend indeed means "a true friend". Also note that both of these "a friend" refer to the same person.

I looked up the relevant word and phrase, and they are helpful.

  • need (singular/uncountable noun) a situation in which it is necessary for something to be done
  • in need (phrase) not having enough food, money, clothing, or other things that are necessary for life
  • indeed (adverb) used for emphasizing that something is true when there is some doubt about it

Which supports the interpretation above. In tough times, most of our friends may disappear or try to stay away from us. However, your true friends will always stay close and even try to help us out of the bad situation. In other words, when a bad thing happened to you, it might be a good time to prove which one of your friends are your true friends.

In my opinion, the proverb, A friend in need is a friend indeed, is already clear the way it is; and it doesn't need a comma or any additional words.

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  • A friend (Maulik) in need is a friend (Damkerng) indeed?
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:18
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    MaulikV is Damkerng's friend in need, this makes him Damkerng's friend indeed. :) Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:25
  • Yes, so the idiom speaks only about ONE person. Got it!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:29
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    The idiom speaks of a relationship in general. I think it would be erroneous to say that the idiom "speaks only about one person."
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 20:31
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    As a child, I was confused by this saying for years because I thought it meant, "A friend who is in need," when it actually means, as you have well explained, "A friend when you are in need." Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 10:01
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A friend in need is a friend indeed.This expression should not be mistaken for one suggesting or refering to two persons at the same time.Rather,it means the quality of sticking close to one's companion(friend)during difficulty.the "indeed"refers to the willingness of a friend to help his friend,which must be put into "action"or "deeds."Then it becomes fitting to say:"a friend in need is a friend indeed."

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  • +1 True, I guessed it for two persons! The matter was clear then. Thanks for your answer anyway.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Mar 5, 2014 at 7:02
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I believe it is like a pun "in deed-indeed". So if you are in trouble-/need/, you expect some real help- /deed/, the one who provides you with the latter is a true friend /a friend indeed/

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A friend in need gives the other person (their friend) the opportunity to do good deeds (mitzvahs). In that way, the friend in need is a good friend, indeed.

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  • How about use "Jack and Jill"?
    – WXJ96163
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 7:38
  • This adds nothing to the existing, much more detailed, answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 9:25
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The content below was originally posted on Phrases UK, here.

There are two ways to interpret this phrase that are in common use:

  1. Someone who helps you when you are in need is a true friend.

  2. Someone who needs your help becomes especially friendly to obtain it.

Firstly, Is it “a friend in need is a friend indeed” or “a friend in need is a friend in deed”? Secondly, is it “a friend (when you are) in need” or “a friend (who is) in need”?

If the former, then the phrase means: “someone who helps you when you are in need is a true friend”. If the latter, it is “someone who needs your help becomes especially friendly in order to obtain it”.

So, that gives us four options:

  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')

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  • I know the source (phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-friend-in-need.html) of this and already gone through it. The question is how that sentence is grammatical? Does it require any punctuation or additional word?
    – Maulik V
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:14
  • No it does not require any punctuation or additional word. Its a complete sentence.
    – GrIsHu
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 9:16
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    @Maulik - A link to that source in your original question would have spared a helpful user from spending a lot of time typing an answer that essentially tells you something that you already know. If you were aware of this analysis already, why didn't you mention it in your question? That is what we mean by "show your research," and this is an excellent example of why that is expected behavior. As an aside, possibility #1 doesn't seem to work, at least in my mind, not unless we change it to: A friend, (who helps when you are) in need, is indeed a true friend.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 10:27
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    @Maulik - Yes, but if you were aware of that website, why not say something like "I saw an explanation provided here, but I'm still confused." That way: (1) Everyone could visit that site, and perhaps learn more, and (2) no one would spend time researching and summarizing what you already know. To answer my query with, essentially, "Well, I got my answer to my question" is a rather self-serving view; questions and answers here are supposed to be of interest to the entire community.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 14:01
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    -1 I believe that grishu needs to have a little chastising. He has quoted almost verbatim word an external reference without giving any credit. This is called plagiarism. Luckily, Maulik V mentioned the exact source.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 17, 2014 at 18:33
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Ennius (circa 239–169 BCE) observed: amicus certus in re incerta cernitur ‎(“a sure friend is known in unsure times”),

Therefore I think it would be best if amended to read "a friend in need, requires a friend in deed." That pretty much clears it up for me.

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  • 2
    That might be true, but that's a different proverb entirely. The actual meaning has to do with how to know who a true friend is (just like Ennius's proverb), not what to do if a friend is in need. Commented Jan 22, 2016 at 23:39
  • @NathanTuggy I thought the same, but this article (mentioned in another answer) cites it as one of the origins of the proverb.
    – allo
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 17:24

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