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?

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      1. Yes my Mother called them back-friends and so did my Grandmother and I do too . It’s always been something we have called them . My ancestry is from mixed places within the uk . My maternal ancestry is Scottish . I have always wondered if it comes from Scotland .
        There are a few words we use in our family that have a Scottish origin .

    1. I’m from Essex ,married to a Midlander–never heard of backfriends but are they anything like hangnails?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

    1. We’re a Brummie family and always called them “backfriends” – though I too am live in Leamington now.

  5. 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)

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

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

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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!).

  14. 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)

  15. 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?

  16. 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.

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

  18. 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.
    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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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 🙂

  21. 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?

  22. 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

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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!

  26. 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.

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

  28. 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’.

    1. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. Me too I have a really painful one right now, my gran used to call them that. From Wiltshire.

  31. Just suffered a painful back friend and was wondering how far this term was used – I’m Cheshire ‘born and bred’ btw

  32. Grew up in Worcester, both parents from Birmingham. I have lived in Australia for 32 years and have always called them backfriends. But more importantly they are called that in Oz too. Love to know where the term originated though.

  33. My husband and I have always known them as back friends. We are from Stafford, Staffordshire. I have come across people who look at me blankly and laugh as they don’t know what I am talking about. Glad I am not the only one using this terminology!

  34. My mother was born and brought up in Malvern and she called them back friends. I’ve never heard anyone else say this but it’s good to find out that there are other people who are familiar with the expression.

  35. I was born and brought up in Australia, but my parents are from Birmingham UK, they called them back friends so that is what our family have always know them as and now it’s been passed onto the next generation too.

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