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On google I have found that the motto

"I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine"

means that "I'll help you, if you help me" or

"to describe the way that one person helps another because they know that person will help them in return."

However by googling the the meaning of

scratch someone's back

is

"to do something that helps someone else but that is often difficult to do or wrong and with the expectation of help in return".

Note that this later changes everything. In the former, the meaning sounds slightly genuine but the later is not genuine at all because it includes the word wrong.

My question is how is this interpreted by Americans?

Like the first case or the second case?

Thanks in advance for your help.

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    Context is everything. No one knows whether the solicitation is illicit until one knows the circumstances in which it is made.
    – user105719
    Feb 19, 2020 at 23:13

1 Answer 1

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You wouldn't use this expression in the context of a very simple task. If, for example, I make someone a cup of tea, in the expectation that they will do the same for me, that is not difficult enough.

So the thing that you do would have to be fairly significant, and here is the difficulty. In most situations where you do a big task for someone, you have a contract and you get paid in money. But if you are doing a big task for someone in the expectations that you will get some kind of favour in return, it tends to be because there is something illicit about the task.

It doesn't have to be wrong things. A company may promote a culture of "if you scratch my back..." to mean "we encourage people to help each other". But looking at examples of its use, more than half seem to be referring to some kind of wrongdoing, or at least a hidden deal.

So if someone does something for you without expecting reward, and you offer to "scratch their back" in return, then there is nothing wrong. If you are asking someone to do something wrong and you offer to scratch their back in return, then the context gives the phrase a different nuance.

Finally, proverbs and sayings are not actually very common, particularly in written English, and can become clichés, which good speakers try to avoid.

By the way, I've read that the phrase originates from the use of a whip to punish sailors. The sailor doing the whipping would agree to only scratch the punished sailor's back, in return for only being scratched when the roles were reversed. However this seems very far-fetched and I've seen no real evidence for it. It is far simpler to think it just means "scratch an itch".

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  • Thank you so much for you answer.
    – user83223
    Feb 20, 2020 at 15:56
  • I have a question, regarding the examples you say that more than half seem to be referring to some kind of wrongdoing, or at least a hidden deal. So, in a common situation say in a friends meeting if someone says "I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine" then there is a ..,60%, 70% or 80%,... that it has to do with some wrongdoing or hidden deal ?
    – user83223
    Feb 20, 2020 at 16:18

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