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This is quite confusing.

In the dictionary, they say

a friend in need:

someone who helps you when you need it

Say, Tom was broke and he needed help and some financial support. Mary helped him while other friends of Tom didn't.

According to the above definition , we say "Mary is a friend in need" which means Mary helped Tom when he needs.

But we have the phrase "people in need" which refers to people who needs food or money.

need 7 [uncountable] when you do not have enough food or money

cases of severe need in the inner cities

in need

We must care for those in need.

So, if we say "Mary is a friend in need", people may think "Mary is a friend who needs help, maybe she needs some food and money from her friends".

Is the phrase "Mary is a friend in need" confusing?

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  • I think that Longman definition is inaccurate. In virtually every context today apart from the "a friend in need is a friend indeed" fixed phrase, a friend in need would mean a friend who needs (help, assistance), not a friend who will help you in your hour of need. Jan 16 '21 at 16:49
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    With reference to the proverb, we might say "Mary was a true 'friend in need' to Tom." Jan 17 '21 at 11:35
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Yes, it's a bit of an archaic phrasing, in my opinion still relatively common because of the rhyme "A friend in need is a friend indeed", i.e. "Someone that's a friend to you when you need help is a real friend".

"A friend in need" referring to them as the person in need would be more natural these days, and it still causes confusion among native English speakers today.

Clearer forms of the same phrasings might be "A friend in a time of need" and "A friend in need of help".

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