Origins of "back-friend"

Sometimes you use words and phrases and don't think anything of them…until someone else asks what on earth you are talking about.   An example of this is “back-friend”.  My family have always used this, from my Dad's side I believe.  I have heard my grandparents use it in the past and my Dad uses it.   Needless to say it's become part of my vocabulary too, but I never though to look at the origin, and always thought everyone knew what it meant. It was my wife (who hails from Buckinghamshire) who stared blankly at me when I used it the first time, years ago, and it was only then that I started to wonder how many people knew what it was and who didn't. So, a quick Google tonight and I found a brief reference to it on “A Dictionary of Slang and Colloqual English Slang and its Analogues“:-
A splinter of skin formed near the roots of the finger-nail.
I'm still not sure how widely this is used; whether it's an old expression or just maybe regional.  Any takers?

46 thoughts on “Origins of "back-friend"

  1. Glenn

    Yep, me too. Also known around here by some as bad friends. The bits of skin by the nail. I have always heard it in a Shakespeare play im sure.

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  2. Cathy Clark

    I just told my colleagues I have one and it is quite painful!! they all
    looked at me blankly!! So am glad to find I didnt make it up!! I am
    originally from Cornwall and now live in Gloucester.

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  3. hannah

    This is what my mum has always called them and she is from Pershore, Worcestershire. Other names I’ve since come across are hangnail and whitlow but no one else I know calls them backfriends!

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  4. Rachel

    They were what mum always called them too!I have used the word in front of many of my friends before and none of them had a clue what i was on about!Oh,and i too am from the Midlands.Leamington Spa to be precise.

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  5. Olivia Baker

    My Dad always laughs at me when I say I have a “back friend”. He told me too google it, so when I found this I was chuffed that I could show him other people use the word also. My nan has always called the stubborn bits of skin around the nail it. Is it just a midlands thing, do you think? (As this is where we are from also)

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  6. Gen

    My Grandma from Stoke-on-Trent called them backfriends too. I grew up in South Staffs, but I only ever knew of my North Staffs Grandma calling them that.

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  7. Debbie Ramsay

    A “back friend”, sounds so daft when we say it, ;o) my granny used this saying, and she was from shropshire,uk, never heard anyone else say it, until i googled it now..and found you lot….;o) x

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  8. Amy

    I think it’s mainly Stokies that say It by the looks of this post, I googled it just now cause I have a pesky backfriend right now and it’s killin me! Im also a Stokie!

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  9. Jane

    I was trying to find out if I was making it up when I used this phrase but now I’m confused, I call them bad friends, did I not hear it correctly as a kid? Born and bread in the Black Country!

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  10. sue

    I call them back friends but my son now lives in Peterborough and they have never heard the name.I am from Cheshire.

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  11. Doris Jones

    Glad I found others that know about backfriends. I don’t know of anyone outside of my family that use this term. We live in Wales but not far from Chester.

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  12. Sue Cook

    My parents and gran used this term when we were growing up 50+ years ago. Yes, you’ve guessed it – we are from Staffordshire !!!

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  13. Bev Donnan

    I originally come from Staffordshire and use the term back friend. I think its a dialect word and southerners don’t know what it means and it’s never used here (only by me!).

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  14. Sarah

    OMG I’m not the only one!!!! My partner has just said I’m a weirdo and that I’m the only one that uses it.. Obviously not! Haha Thanks guys for helping me to know I’m sane. :o)

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  15. Ian

    A Stokie here looking for the origin of the term 🙂 This seems to be the only place on the web with any reference to back friend as defined here, looks like it’s a Stoke thing?

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  16. Carol

    So glad to find out its not me going mad, all our family uses the term ‘back friend’ and we are from Herefordshire. My Dad went to the doctor with a very sore lump on his finger. The poor doctor had no idea what he was on about when my Dad was explaining the lump had started out as a simple back friend.

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  17. Sue

    I’m originally from Cheshire and we all used it there. Lived in Devon for 38 years; it makes my partner smile!

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  18. Phil

    Another Stokonian here. I’ve called these little blighters Backfriends all my life, I suppose because my parents and grandparents did.
    As a professional complementary therapist I have treated this condition many times in many places as part of a clinical (as opposed to cosmetic) manicure treatment.

    The clinical name is a whitlow.
    In my experience it is called a backfriend in the West Midlands, Staffordshire, Shropshire into Wales, Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Cheshire and Lancashire.
    In East Anglia and West Country it’s a hangnail.
    People travel widely and take many local expressions with them but these are the areas that I’ve found most predominant.

    Backfriend couldn’t be a worse misnomer… They’re certainly not your friend and nor would you want one back in a hurry. They’re painful; inconvenient at best, incapacitating at worst.

    The best home remedy I’ve found is the good, tried and tested, centuries old bread poultice.
    Take a reasonably thick piece of crust of bread, big enough to wrap around the fingertip covering the nail and down to the first knuckle. Stale bread is best.
    Put the bread into a cup or small bowl and cover it with boiling water for 30-60 seconds.
    While this is steeping massage one or two drops of tea tree essential oil, if available, into the area around the fingernail.
    Drain the water off the bread. Very briefly blot it with a piece of kitchen paper towel. Apply it as hot as is safely possible (test it with the little-fingertip) and wrap it around the infected area.
    Hold it into place with a loosely applied piece of cling film, don’t pull it tight or you may restrict blood flow. Loose is quite ok.
    Leave it in place for an hour or two and remove.
    Next…
    Put 1 teaspoonful of cooking salt (NaCl) into a cup of water as hot as you can manage to put the finger into. Safety first! Keep your finger in the water until it cools.
    Dry and apply one or two drops of tea tree essential oil.
    Repeat at intervals as necessary until cleared. One treatment is sometimes all that is required.
    Proceed with caution when using hot water but with a little common sense this is very effective treatment used by generations for centuries.The 21st century is not an exception.

    Another observation I’ve made is that in the areas where a whitlow is called a backfriend a stye on the eye is colloquially called a powk…. but let’s not go down that road here – unless you want to of course!

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  19. Shirlie

    Thanks for that Phil ~ Will try that now.
    I got these on my fingers yesterday; strangely after visiting my Mum who also has them (are they catching?) known around here (Shropshire) as ‘Bad Friend’ Mum says they are caused by cold weather & paper cuts, which figures as I spent most of the past 2 days wrapping Christmas presents.

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  20. Clair Harris

    Got this word from my partner whose parents are originally from Stoke but now live in Rugeley. No idea the origins but they got it from their parents. My kids now say it and hopefully it will continue forever 🙂

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  21. Jo

    I used the term to my other half who didn’t have a clue what I was on about. I call them ‘bad friends’ and got the term from my Gran. I was curious as to why it is used and where it came from so I googled it and this page seems to be the only reference to it at all. I was staggered to see that it is such a local phrase (I’m from Stafford originally). It is obviously mostly a West Midlands thing but does anyone know why it is used? What are its origins?

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  22. Sally Halliday

    Oh my gosh I’m amazed. Just found other people that use the word back friend. Thought I was a weirdo but I’m not, live in Plymouth and they haven’t got a clue about back friends. Looked the word up because my mum has just stopped biting her nails and hasn’t got any back friends now. Must stop biting my nails!! Originally from uttoxeter staffs. Would love to know origins if word

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  23. Nicola

    Hi my sister and I call them witlows cus wim posh but knew the colloquial as bad friends. I’d never heard back friend till I saw this post. Bad friend would make more sense, they are painful which is the bad bit but always with you,the friend part. But back friend seems to be winning in numbers. I’m Black Country by the way.

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  24. Trish Barber

    I just complained to my Scottish other-half that I’ve got three backfriends – he had no idea what I was on about. I’m originally from Cheshire but lived in the Midlands most of my life.

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  25. Rex

    It must have spread to Gloucester where my family have always lived.We use the term backfriend. Just asked my other half but she’s never heard of it. But then, she hadn’t heard of a Whitlow either…sheltered life!

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  26. Lana Bellinger

    Thank goodness other people know this term. My Gran always used it and she lived in Wiltshire. My parents also used it but my Dad was from Staffordshire. Think it maybe just an old fashioned terminology.

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  27. Sally

    I’m originally from Uttoxeter, family from Staffordshire or Derbyshire. Always used the word ‘ backfriend’ . In Northamptonshire now and nobody understands me 😀

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  28. Marie

    I’ve always called them ‘bad friends’, I’ve never heard ‘backfriends’. I know I must have picked it up from someone, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else use either term except for my daughters (who have picked it up from me). I’m from Wolverhampton / Black Country. I had wondered whether I’d made it up myself.

    And I also say ‘powk’ for stye and call the fluff little kids get between their toes ‘monsters’.

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    1. Pat webb

      I’m from Wolverhampton too and have always known them as back friends, which is what my mum called them. She came from Clee Hill but my grandad was originally from Walsall. She also called a stye a powke. She did move to Wolverhampton in1935 when she was 14 so maybe she picked it up from there.

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  29. Sarah

    Back friends here too, I guess from my mother who was born in Leicester, now passed on to my children. I have two of the blighters now!

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  30. Dawn

    This thread still going? I’m originally from Dudley in the Black Country. I’ve always known them as bad friends or back friends. I live in Wales now and the damp weather seems to trigger them. My right pointy finger is as sore as a boil as I type this.

    Reply

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