Back in the day


Senior Member
It seems to me that now everyone is saying "back in the day" instead of more specific references to the past such as "back when I was young" or "back in the 70's, 80's etc." Are others aware of the ubiquitousness of this phrase? Is it just in the US or in other English-speaking areas? Any thoughts on why or how it came to be such an "in" expression?
  • It comes from the older generation reminiscing about the past. "the day" comes from another older phrase "back in my day" meaning when I was young. The slang "the day" implies some superiority of the past by using "the" as a stronger specific article. You can see "the" used this way in a few other modern slang terms. "The Bomb" for example, which means superior and great.

    I think it is used pretty universally by the English speaking community.
    I've never heard anyone say 'back in the day' by itself, in this context. 'Back in the day when...' I'd think a little overtly nostalgic, but I have heard people say it.

    P.S. Come to think of it we, at least the nostalgic among us, do say: 'Back in the days when...' or 'Back in the days of...'
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    I agree with sound shift. Although I am sure languageGuy is right about it having been popular for some time, I notice a distinct rise in the popularity of this phrase of late—on the Internet, at least—so I don't think it is entirely to do with the speaker's age. In fact young people are using it to refer to fairly recent times. It seems to be spreading like a virus, and no doubt British speakers will be using it too.
    Strange that this should come up.
    An eight-year-old girl of my acquaintance has been writing a story entitled "Clarissa - back in the day".
    I have no idea where she came across this expression, but I'll ask her.
    She thinks it came from watching US TV imports.
    Her mother thinks it came from her dad ... who probably got it from US movies.

    There are no examples in the British National Corpus, but of course it is 1980s-1993.
    The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 223 examples, but most interesting is the time chart which shows that more than half of those examples are from 2005-2008.
    1990-1994 - 8
    1995-1999 -13
    2000-2004 - 76
    2005-2008 - 126

    I have only ever heard North Americans say "back in the day".
    Interesting. I thought it worked in BE as well and Cambridge also doesn't metnion it's AmE.
    So how would BE put this example where someone is nostalgic about a swimming pool that they don't have any more?

    Speaking as an American who often uses 'back in the day,' the free-standing sentence "Back in the day, we had an apartment with a swimming pool" is not what I would use as an example of 'back in the day.'

    I use the phrase more for talking about customary activities, events, etc. or for general statements about life than for saying that I possessed a particular thing. And 'the day' doesn't have to be that long ago: it's just a time that's significantly different from nowadays.
    -- Back in the day, sailors went around Cape Horn wearing the same kind of shirts and pants that we wear walking in the park on a cloudy day. (a century or more ago)
    -- Back in the day, I walked to school by myself even when I was only five years old. (decades ago, but in my lifetime)
    -- Back in the day, we used to ride packed together in the subway without worrying about catching an airborne virus. (three years ago)
    I meant it in a positive way in the sentence about walking to school. It was fun walking to school by myself; I didn't have my mother tagging along telling me to hurry up or keeping me from stopping to throw sticks for the neighbor's dog.
    The sentence about riding on the subway is positive too, I think. We were carefree then, but not now.
    Maybe I don't understand what you're asking.
    Could I use it in a negative scenario?

    Back in the day lots of children were starving in this area.
    It's an informal phrase. If I were writing an academic paper, I wouldn't write "Back in the day, the Athenian navy ruled the Aegean." In speaking casually, I probably wouldn't use it for something horrible unless I were being a little cynical. It has a undertone of reminiscing about positive things rather than recalling trauma.
    In my sentence above, I'm thinking of the sailors who went around Cape Horn as daring and brave compared to people nowadays who put on thick shirts and lined jackets to walk in the park.
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    Could I use it in a negative scenario?
    Back in the day lots of children were starving in this area.
    That sentence is only wrong because it is meaningless. When is "back in the day"? 2010? 1970? 1530?

    Luckily (and unlike almost everything in this forum), English is not a language of single sentences. Nobody walks in a room, says one sentence, and leaves. It just doesn't happen. Are there any languages like that?

    Anyway, in any kind of real situation, the reader/listener would already know that "back in the day" meant "during the great Irish potato famine of 1845-1849". Then the sentence would make sense.
    In reference to your example, @zaffy, I'd take him to be implying that he was tough and survived even though he had no socks and only one pair of shoes.
    Back in the day, we used to ride packed together in the subway without worrying about catching an airborne virus.
    I guess this example also doesn't say when "back in the day" was, does it?
    It doesn't. It could mean "before Covid", but I remember people having the same worry in 1960, and ever since. Covid is not the only disease that people catch on crowded subways. There are crowded subways in many countries, and have been since the 1950s.
    I agree with dojibear that 'back in the day' is vague enough that in an isolated sentence, or when one is talking with someone whose history one doesn't know, one can't tell when 'back in the day' was. Of course if the sentence includes "I did X" then you know the time is within the speaker's lifetime. And there can be clues in the sentence. If my daughter said "Back in the day, when Eisenhower was president" one can infer that she means between 1953 and 1961.

    i intended my sentence "Back in the day, we used to ride packed together in the subway without worrying about catching an airborne virus" to be an example of something in which one could use 'back in the day' to refer to life three years ago. I didn't mean that it had to refer to a time pre-Covid, and I suppose that people have indeed worried about catching diseases in subways ever since there have been crowded subway cars.
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    Back in the day is totally context dependent. When a 15-year-old says it it can have a completely different meaning than when a sixty-year-old says it. ("Back in the day, Dad, I used to eat these all the time." "'Back in the day', son, you weren't even born." ;)). There is no definition of when it happened. If you can't understand it from the context, then you won't know when it was.

    Back in the day I had no socks and only one pair of shoes.
    I agree this sentence isn't necessarily negative. It's more boasting, in a way. "That's all I had and I survived fine."
    I came across this example of "back in the day" where it simply means "in the past", doesn't it?
    In other words "back in the day" doesn't necessarily refer to nostalgic things, to remembering how things were better in the past, right?

    And would "in the past" work in this example?

    In the United Kingdom, vehicles will be taxed according to their engines, construction, weight, emissions, fuel type, and their use. The term “Heavy Goods Vehicle” was created to categorize vehicles for tax purposes. Back in the day, vehicles with a gross weight below 3500 kilograms were referred to as “Light Goods Vehicles,” whereas those weighing higher than 3500 kilometers were “Heavy Goods Vehicles.”
    We sometimes use nostalgic expressions like this (or “in the good old days”) when, as here, the notion of the past being better is somewhat vague. I think that’s the case here : the old rules were extremely simple, and now they are more complex. It’s a very mild nostalgia.
    Of course it works. It just loses the mild nostalgia.
    I was just wondering if possibly "in the past" goes back further away to the past than "back in the day".
    I mean, doesn't "in the past" sound like a few centuries ago?
    And in that sense, "back in the day" is more specific. "Back in the day" doesn't refer to yesterday or last week or even last year. It was long enough ago that things have evolved since then, not simply changed. Society as a whole is different now in significant ways, than it was then. If something was a certain way two years ago and then changed last year, "back in the day" is not generally* appropriate.

    * As always, there could be specific, at times purposely humorous, exceptions. "You don't wear a mask in public anymore?" "No, but back in the day, I wore one religiously." "Back in the day" implicitly refers to what a wild ride the COVID era has been. Things have evolved a lot in the last two and a half years.