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In both the Free Dictionary and the Collins Dictionary, 'in need' means 'lacking something'. So, the proverb 'a friend in need is a friend indeed' should mean 'a friend lacking something is a true friend' literally.

How come the proverb means 'someone who helps you when you are in need is a true friend'? Isn't a phrase like 'in need' supposed to modify the noun or subject preceding it? Are there other examples where a phrase does not modify the subject preceding it?

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    "Isn't a phrase like 'in need' supposed to modify the noun preceding it?" Not that specifically, I think. Consider "Eating crackers in bed is a bad idea" - in bed doesn't have to specifically modify crackers, just the general idea.
    – stangdon
    Apr 27 at 14:06
  • @stangdon Yep, but 'eating crackers' is still a subject modified by 'in bed'.
    – Michael
    Apr 27 at 14:17
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    @stangdon "Eating crackers" is a noun phrase modified by "in bed". Apr 28 at 2:27
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    Poetic freedom in proverbs -- "A friend [who still acts as a friend in times when you are] in need ..." Apr 28 at 11:55
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    I believe this is a matter of stylized speech from the time period during which the phrase was coined versus speech we would consider grammatically correct today.
    – CAB
    Apr 28 at 18:57

4 Answers 4

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The Collins Dictionary definition you linked is the one to use here:

People in need do not have enough of essential things such as money, food, or good health.

The phrase makes more sense if you expand it a little bit.

A friend who stays with you when you are in need is a friend indeed. The speaker is the one who is in need, and the person who is still their friend at that time is a true friend.

The antonym of a friend in need would be a fair weather friend - one who is by your side when things are good, but who abandons you as soon as things go awry.

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    I agree with this interpretation. I have always subconsciously expanded the saying as "A friend in [times of] need is a friend indeed." It's just been shortened to sound pithier. Apr 27 at 23:36
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    I've never heard other interpretations other than what Allen R. Brady mentioned. I guess this is one of those "depending on how cynical is your view about the world, you will interpret it accordingly".
    – justhalf
    Apr 28 at 9:39
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    @EricDuminil "mental juggling" depends on the default school of thought of the reader. For me, interpreting "all that glitters is not gold" as (the original intention) "not everything that's shiny is precious" requires more (linguistic) mental juggling compared to the face value reading (according to me, from mathematical logic perspective) "everything that's shiny is not precious" or, equivalently "nothing precious is shiny". The latter interpretation does require (common sense) mental juggling for me, since I don't believe that "nothing precious is shiny", but it's the face value for me.
    – justhalf
    Apr 28 at 9:44
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    @EricDuminil I don't know that you need to "expand it a little bit", just that it's easier to explain that way. I've honestly never heard the alternative interpretation used in real life, and the alternative does need equal "mental juggling" to make sense - at least to me.
    – Werrf
    Apr 28 at 12:34
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    How is there an argument about an idiom not meaning literally what the words say. That's practically the definition. An idiom is a saying whose meaning is established through usage. Are people confused when someone says, "You've let the cat out of the bag," yet there is no cat to be found? Or that half the English speaking world says "I could care less," to mean they couldn't care less? Is it annoying to people and do they write great comedic skits youtu.be/om7O0MFkmpw about it? sure. Is anyone really trying to argue it means what it literally says? No.
    – DRF
    Apr 28 at 15:04
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The majority of dictionaries define this saying as, “A friend [to you when you are] in need is a friend indeed.” This proverb is often traced back to the Greek playwright Euripides in the fifth century BCE (“It is in trouble’s hour that the good most clearly show their friendship,” a citation approximately two centuries earlier than the others that have been mentioned in any of the answers or comments so far). The earliest examples of it in English, going back a thousand years, also follow this sense, and this is how most native speakers understand it.

The earliest surviving example of the in need/indeed rhyme might be the anonymous poem Everyman from the late 1400s, which has the dialogue,

“Sir, I say as I will do in deed.”

“Then be you a good friend at need;”

(This would not be correct grammar in modern English, but it was at the time.)

You should take heed, though, that (as one of the answers says), some native speakers interpret it as saying sarcastically that a friend who is in need will pretend to be a friend. This sentiment has been expressed in various ways for many centuries, too, but reading “a friend indeed” this way is modern. Back in the 1400s, “in deed” unambiguously meant that the friend’s actions matched their words, but “indeed” in modern English can be used as a disparaging intensifier.

Regardless of whether this is etymologically wrong, though, you should be aware that that is how some people will understand it.

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There is already considerable debate about the meaning of this saying, as noticed in this resource:

There are various interpretations of the meaning of 'a friend in need is a friend indeed'.

Taken as read, it means that a person becomes more of a friend when they are in need. The cynical view of this is that they become more friendly in order to get something they need from you, so it isn't really saying that they are more of a true friend at all.

Other 'interpretations' of the proverb would seem to be based on the fallacy that the 'friend in need' and the 'friend indeed' are two different people, and often compare the saying to other proverbs that align more to that meaning. This page explains the cynicism in the saying, and likens it to a more closely-matching Latin proverb from the 2nd or 3rd century which translates as "Nothing is there friendlier to a man than a friend in need".

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    Wow, your newly-added content seems unbelievable to me. In fact, in all the coursebooks I read, classes I attended and websites I found before, the proverb means 'someone who helps you when you are in need is a true friend'. May I ask whether you are a native speaker of English?
    – Michael
    Apr 27 at 14:28
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    @Michael I have always interpreted the idiom exactly as Astralbee explains it. The fact that you came here asking for clarification because your interpretation doesn't seem to correspond with the written form is saying something, I think :)
    – Joachim
    Apr 27 at 14:55
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    I've always interpreted it, and seen it used, in the way phrases.org.uk explains it. Apr 27 at 16:37
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    There are a lot more websites tracing "a friend in need" back to Quintus Ennius than to Titus Marcus Plautus. By around 800 to 5. So I'll side with established dictionaries that it is not sarcastic/cynical.
    – towr
    Apr 28 at 6:24
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    @mcalex Apparently so. It's very easy to side with the resource that matches what we already believe. Dictionaries often show how words and sayings are used, even through misuse. It's the reason that many dictionaries are including a definition of 'literal' that means 'figurative'. It cannot possibly mean what Oxford says it means - that a true friend shows themselves in their time of need when it says a friend in need is a friend indeed.
    – Astralbee
    Apr 28 at 7:23
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Paraphrasing the proverb, it means

in your hour of need

when you are in trouble and need someone to help you (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English)

from A collection of the Letters of James Hervey dated 1760

enter image description here

Shall I beg you to tell Dr.❋❋❋, that his beautiful Visions were by Dodsley the Bookseller put into the Hands of a very pious and ingenious Friend of mine, who proposes an Alteration in the ninth Line of the sixty-ninth Page of the fifth Edition, where he would read Jesus instead of Virtue:

At that important Hour of Need,
Jesus shall prove a Friend indeed.

The excerpt referred to the lines found in Visions by Verse, by Nathaniel Cotton (the elder), printed in 1751:

enter image description here

And when the closing Scenes prevail,
When Wealth, State, Pleasure, All shall fail;
All that a foolish World admires
Or Passion craves, or Pride inspires;
At that important Hour of Need,
I'll prove faithful Friend indeed
;
My Hands shall smooth thy dying Bed,
My Arms sustain thy drooping Head:
[…]

There is no ambiguity here, friendship is exemplified and exalted in this brief verse

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    What evidence is there that this is related to the saying "a friend in need is a friend indeed?" These are good examples of related usage, but does not seem to relate to the actual saying being asked about at all. Apr 28 at 23:08

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