Back in the day

Back in the day is an American idiom used to refer to an earlier time, especially one the speaker remembers fondly. Unlike similar phrases that state a more specific time—e.g., back in the days of dial-up internet, back when we were young—back in the day is not part of a larger phrase and doesn’t specify the time it refers to; day is not qualified. We must use context to infer what time the speaker is talking about, so it’s similar to phrases like a long time ago and some time ago.

The phrase in its modern sense came about in the second half of the 20th century and became widely used toward the end of the 1980s. Many documented instances from the late ’80s and early ’90s are in rap lyrics, and many other examples from this period are in publications focused on African-American culture. Today, though, the phrase is not at all confined to those contexts.


Back in the day, it was okay if Wonder Mike liked a little too much hot butter on his breakfast toast. [Vibe (1993)]

This album has the voices of people from back in the day to now, from India all the way to America. [quote in Billboard (1994)]

Back in the day, a group like, say, Nektar would have throttled a sound as darkly beautiful as that opening for 17 stoner-worthy minutes. [Spin (1995)]

[T]hey became educators, bought their own houses — and this was in the late ’60s and ’70s. That was unheard of back in the day. [quote in Ebony (1998)]

But back in the day, 1940 symbolized only a glorious achievement, a crowning moment for “the Classiest Team in Hockey.” [The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports, Stuart F. Miller (2006)]

But we’ve known O’Brien is a fighter since back in the day, when he was the David to Jay Leno’s Goliath. [Boston Globe]

Trevor is an inveterate drug user and low-life who worked with Michael back in the day. [Guardian Games blog (2012)]

9 thoughts on “Back in the day”

  1. This one irks me greatly, and yet I find myself saying it, too. It seems to be a laziness issue — not wanting to say an entire sentence when a fragment will do, ie: “Back in the horse-and-buggy days,” or “Back in the days before cell phones.”

  2. Much more common now (than at any point “back in the day”) is the unnecessary use of “back” to prop up nearly any reference to a point in the recent or distant past. Back in February, back on March 12, back in 2010, back in the middle of the 20th century–all these and more are rampant in the mass media. The usage appears to have developed as part of the continuing attempt by practitioners to make media communication “more conversational.” Since average people don’t talk like media folk, curious only-in-the-media usages like “back” sprout and grow in the average evening TV newscast until absurdity reigns; e.g., the daily string of gerund-laden sentences in network news as writers and anchors actively avoid the simple past tense when describing events that happened [back] in the past.

    • Yeah, gerunds are used heavily in news writing.
      I never really considered that before.

      Is that heavy usage a problem, though?

  3. Can we stop using the term African-American unless referring to American immigrants from Africa?

    I knew a guy in college who had immigrated to the U.S. from South Africa. He was an African-American.
    But he wasn’t black.

    The usage above is especially egregious because the culture of black Americans (if there is truly such a culture), is completely different from the culture of those who have come from Africa. For example, members of the large Somali population in Minneapolis generally speak little English, cook/eat traditional Somali foods, and listen to Somali music. But they don’t read Ebony.

    This has to stop.

    • On this site, which is intended for a very broad audience, we tend to use the terms that are the safest and least likely to offend anyone. The rule of thumb for determining the least offensive term for a group of people is to find the one that most people within that group use to describe themselves. There is a generational divide right now with “African-American” and “black,” with older black Americans using the former and young people using the latter, though even younger people tend to use “African-American” in more formal contexts. For many people of a somewhat older generation, self-applying “African-American” while rejecting terms imposed by whites was an empowering way to reclaim one’s African roots after generations of de-Africanization in a racist culture. (Of course, others use “black” as the self-empowering term, but that’s beside the point because the two terms don’t oppose each other.) This is still important to a lot of people, even some younger people, so our view is that now is not the right time to shun the term for reasons of logic. Its cultural basis is much more important.

      We don’t know your background, so we apologize if we’re just telling you things you already know.

      Also, couldn’t the specific complaint you bring up about the illogic of “African American” be said of many similar terms? Many people proudly call themselves Italian-American, Chinese-American, or Irish-American, for instance, even if their families have been in the U.S. for generations. If there’s a difference between “African American” and these terms, we’re missing it in your argument.

      By the way, thank you for all your thoughtful comments. We appreciate them even when we disagree.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply.

        There is a difference between Irish-American and African-American (when used to mean black). Terms like Italian-American are used to distinguish oneself from Americans of other European ancestry. This is like saying Ugandan-American or Nigerian-American. It’s a way of saying something important about a person, something that can’t be understood simply by looking. It acknowledges that cultural and ethnic heritage goes far beyond skin color, that Germans share a history different from Scots, that Moroccans are distinct from Kenyans. It recognizes that skin color really tells very little about a person.

        So, even though I know why you use the term African-American, I just wish it weren’t used anymore.

        And just so you know, I love your site and love participating, so keep up the great work.

  4. This reminds me of ‘old-school’, where the ‘school’ part is often redundant, and just ‘old’ would do. Any chance of a post on this?

  5. reardensteel, I used to share your views on the term “African American”. I thought it was just a politically correct (and annoying) way to say “black”. I would use examples just like your white, South African example to point out how ridiculous it was and usually finish up by saying that I wanted to move to India so I could be an “American Indian”. I’ve since changed my views. What “African Americans” actually refers to are black people in America who are the descendants of slaves. It refers to a very specific and distinct group of people that does NOT include recent immigrants to the US from Africa. Politicians and news anchors may refer to first generation immigrants as African Americans, but the people themselves do not. They call themselves Africans. Once I realized the distinction, I ceased to find the term “African American” so annoying. So you are correct in your assertion that it refers to one group and not the other. You just have your groups mixed up.

    I do agree that a term to distinguish between these two completely different groups of people would be helpful but “African American” is taken. By the way, I’m a public high school teacher and I spend all day with kids from both of these categories and kids from all over for that matter. After your family has been here for a generation or two we’re all just Americans. I never, ever hear any one say “I’m Korean-American” or I’m “Guatemalan American”.


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