A Friend in Need Is a Friend in Deed - Short Essay

1290 Words May 16th, 2013 6 Pages


Almost always it is the origin of a phrase or saying that requires the most research; the meaning being well understood. This phrase is interesting because there are various interpretations of its meaning.
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'.
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Everyman: Then be you a good friend at need;
By the 16th century, when the proverb was recorded in John Heywood's A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes, 1562:
Prove [i.e. test] thy friend ere [before] thou have need; but, in-deed
A friend is never known till a man have need.
Before I had need, my most present foes
Seemed my most friends; but thus the world goes
So, what does that evidence indicate in terms of original meaning? Ennius' text is ambiguous and, being a later translation, can't be considered the original source of the phrase in English. Caxton's version is also unhelpful. The Everyman play is clearer in its intent and supports interpretation 2. Heywood's verse can't be considered the original meaning as the other citations predate it. It is worth considering though as Heywood was an indefatigable recorder of proverbs as understood in England in the 16th century. It is safe to say that, whatever view we have now, in 1562 either 1 or 2 was the accepted meaning.
Neither 3 nor 4 appears to be supported by early texts and, as they aren't widely held today either, it seems safe to discount them. On the balance of evidence, interpretation 2 has the best claim to be the original meaning of the phrase, i.e. 'a friend, when you are in need, is someone who is prepared to prove their friendship by their deeds' .
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