It’s fun to say because it rhymes, but I’ve never understood the meaning, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Of course, you know who your friends are when they are there when you really need them. I can say that Tasha is a true friend. She was at the hospital with me on the night that my Daddy died and that meant a lot to me because being alone would not have been any fun. It’s not a big deal if she is busy with a canoe trip and cannot make it to a birthday meal. However, coming late to the hospital when we rushed my Daddy there and me feeling very uncertain about what to think or feel and having her there helped, even though at first the doctor said he was going to be okay. We soon learned it wasn’t and the doctor said I’d need a friend and she did stay. That meant lots.
Gracie did not tell me about her having her gastric bypass surgery because it was so close to the time that my Daddy died, so being in a hospital would not have been an ideal situation for me. That was very nice of her.
So, why is a friend in need a friend indeed?
There are plenty of ways to interpret the phrase, and I am interpreting it one way as I explain what I think, but it is not the way I think of the phrase. However, it can be interpreted that way that a friend (when you are in need) is a friend indeed.
There are four ways that the phrase can be interpreted.
They way that I thought the phrase was supposed to be interpreted is, “A friend, (who is) in need, is indeed a true friend. (‘indeed’).”
However, the way that I explained my situation, would make the phrase, “A friend, (when you are) in need, is indeed a true friend. (‘indeed’)” or “A friend, (when you are) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (‘in deed’).”
Then, less commonly, there is “A friend, (who is) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it (‘in deed’).”
From evidence, the phrase should probably be, “A friend in need is a friend in deed,” meaning that a friend when you are in need, will prove friendship by what is done.
However, most people tend to think the phrase is “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” and it would be extremely difficult to get the status quo to change so most people include the space.
It seems that the earliest printed use of the phrase is from Caxton’s Sonnes of Aymon printed in 1489. It says, “It is sayd, that at the nede the frende is knowen.”
Scholars place the usage around the same time, though because it simply is listed as the late 1400s, it may have been earlier than the previous usage.
The reason for this is that the following lines are found in the morality play, Everyman.
Fellowship: Sir, I say as I will do in deed.
Everyman: Then be you a good friend at need;
By the 1500s, the phrase was in common use and a version can be found in A Dialogue Conteynyng Prouerbes and Epigrammes which was published in 1652.
It contains the following:
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
Martin, Gary. “A friend in need as a friend indeed”. The Phrase Finder. May 28, 2010 http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-friend-in-need.html>.