You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours is an idiom that dates back hundreds of years. An idiom is a commonly used word, group of words, or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery or metaphors, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Figures of speech like an often-used metaphor have definitions and connotations that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Mastery of the turn of phrase of an idiom, which may use slang words or other parts of speech common in American slang or British slang, is essential for the English learner. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions and idiomatic language such as hit the sack, spill the beans, let the cat out of the bag, silver lining, back to the drawing board, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, hit the nail on the head, face the music, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, because they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. English phrases that are idioms should not be taken literally. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the phrasing of the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker; it is helpful to maintain a list of phrases, common expressions, colloquial terms, and popular expressions to memorize that are used figuratively or idiomatically. We will examine the meaning of the common idiom you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, where it came from, and some examples of its idiomatic usage in sentences.

You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours means if you do me a favor, I will do you a favor in return; the expression refers to a quid pro quo, which is a reciprocal exchange for mutual benefit. The phrase you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours came into use in the early 1700s, though there is some debate as to its origin. Some believe it came from the British Navy; that sailors who were forced to administer floggings to each other promised to but “scratch” the victim. The evidence for this derivation is shaky. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours may simply allude to the fact that one cannot generally reach every itchy spot on one’s back on one’s own. Like many idioms, only the first part, you scratch my back, is often quoted with the assumption that the listener can supply the rest of the idiom.


“Regrettably, for too long, an old boys club mentality that promotes a culture of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ has plagued the corridors of City Hall,” she added. (Detroit Free Press)

In a classic case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” the Ukrainians would gather dirt on the Bidens and help Trump win reelection and Giuliani would use his connections to the president to get them what they wanted, including the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. (Chicago Tribune)

There’s the age-old adage of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, but that is just not what I want to do with the label. (Decibel Magazine)

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