[Fwd: Chicago Tribune: At the end of the day, back in the day just means `past']

Drew Danielson andrew.danielson at CMU.EDU
Thu Jun 24 15:33:06 UTC 2004

hey folks, here's a little reportage on reportage.

Nathan Bierma just did an article on the term 'back in the day' for the
Chicago Trib.  He found me via a discussion on the term here at ADS-L,
from about 3.5 yrs ago, and cited me and Margaret Lee in the article.
is the article, and
is from the original ADS-L discussion


-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Chicago Tribune: At the end of the day, back in the day just
means `past'
Date: Thu, 24 Jun 2004 09:51:23 -0500
From: Nathan Bierma <nbierma at booksandculture.com>
To: <nunberg at csli.stanford.edu>, <johnmcw at socrates.berkeley.edu>,
<vand at calvin.edu>
CC: <mlee303 at yahoo.com>, <DrewDanielson at CMU.edu>,       <vanderklippe at gmail.com>

Here's what I came up with for 'back in the day':

At the end of the day, back in the day just means `past'

By Nathan Bierma
Special to the Tribune

June 24, 2004

CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien once owned a lavender Citroen, she recalled on
the air June 10.

"Wow! That was back in the day," her guest remarked.

"That was so back in the day it's not even funny," O'Brien replied. "I don't
want to talk about it anymore."

Which "day" we are talking about is not always clear, but there has been a
lot of going back to it lately.

This month, all in the same week -- June 14 -- Auto Week wrote that the new
Pontiac GTO "has standard features galore and build quality unheard of back
in the day." Fortune, in an article about airlines, observed, "Back in the
day, bad service was the trade-off for low prices [before higher quality
discount airlines emerged]." Newsweek said Slash, the former guitarist for
Guns N' Roses now strumming with the band Velvet Revolver, "looks exactly as
he did back in the day."

A Nexis search for "back in the day" returns more than 3,500 results for the
first five months of this year, compared with about 2,000 for the same
period in the year 2000 (although Nexis does not distinguish between "the
day" and "those days").

Quarter of a million results

The Google search engine yields more than a quarter of a million results for
"back in the day," five times as many as "back in those days" and 10 times
as many as "back in my day."

The origins of "back in the day" are obscure, but the consensus among
linguists and word watchers participating in The American Dialect Society's
e-mail discussions seems to be that "back in the day" arose from hip-hop
music circa the 1980s.

"I teach at Hampton [Va.] University, an historically black college," writes
linguist Margaret Lee in an interview by e-mail. "I remember my students
using `back in the day' as early as 1984 to refer to the relatively recent
past, but usually a time before they were born. Before that, I remember it
being used occasionally by hip-hop artists in TV interviews in the early

"I don't know that it originated in African-American English or hip-hop
speech, but it has certainly gotten currency in those discourse
communities," says Drew Danielson, an administrative assistant at Carnegie
Mellon University in Pittsburgh in an interview by e-mail.

Hip-hop titles

Danielson cites hip-hop songs titled "Back In The Day" by Young MC and Ahmad
in the early 1990s. Recent albums by artists Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot
have tracks called "Back in the Day." Newsday wrote this month that the new
Beastie Boys album features "the same kind of East Coast beats that Run-DMC
and The Sugarhill Gang would have busted out back in the day."

A movie called "Back in the Day," starring rapper Ja Rule, is scheduled to
open later this year.

As the phrase is currently used, "back in the day" seems to have two basic
meanings: "long ago" and "was it really that long ago?"

For the first sense, consider O'Brien and her lavender Citroen. She was
really saying, "That was so long ago it's not even funny." Here, "the day"
serves a shortened form of "the days of my youth" or "the days when lavender
was in style."

"The day" can also mean "heyday," which the American Heritage Dictionary
defines as "the period of greatest popularity, success or power; prime."

Former Detroit Pistons player Rick Mahorn compared the crowds that cheered
his championship team in the late 1980s to those who followed this year's
victorious Pistons. "I remember the crowd being just as loud, just as vocal,
back in the day," he told the Detroit News in a June 15 story.

One quirk of context: when someone uses "back in the day," it's generally a
sign of pleasant nostalgia for days past. If you hear "back in my day," get
ready for a pronouncement on modern moral decline: "Back in my day, kids
respected their elders" carries an overtone very different from "kids
respected their elders back in the day."

Sometimes "the day" isn't really so long ago: "Compared to what it was like
to start your own Web page back in the day, starting a blog is a breeze,"
wrote the Macon [Ga.] Telegraph earlier this year in an article about the
fast-changing Internet.

Younger generations may be latching onto the catchphrase as a rite of
passage, says James Vanden Bosch, English professor at Calvin College in
Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I hear it only from twentysomethings," he says. "It strikes me that this is
early evidence of these youngsters' awareness that they, too, are growing
old, and suddenly their quite recent past -- 7 or 8 years ago -- constitutes
a significant period of time and development."

"It's a way," he adds, "of claiming to be old enough to have an interesting
past already."


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