A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED
Almost always it is the origin of a phrase or saying that requires the most research; the meaning being well understood. This phrase is interesting because there are various interpretations of its meaning. Firstly, is it 'a friend in need is a friend indeed' or 'a friend in need is a friend in deed'? Secondly, is it 'a friend (when you are) in need' or 'a friend (who is) in need'? If the former, then the phrase means: 'someone who helps you when you are in need is a true friend'. If the latter, it is 'someone who needs your help becomes especially friendly in order to obtain it'. So, that gives us four options:
1. A friend, (when you are) in need, is indeed a true friend. ('indeed') 2. A friend, (when you are) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it ('in deed') 3. A friend, (who is) in need, is indeed a true friend. ('indeed') 4. A friend, (who is) in need, is someone who is prepared to act to show it ('in deed') The original meaning can be resolved to some degree by the documentary evidence - see below. Nevertheless, there is no unambiguous right or wrong here and this is a phrase that we probably infer the meaning of from context when we first hear it. Whichever of the above options we initially opt for will cement our understanding of the phrase; probably forever, if the vehemence of the mutually contradictory mails I get on this subject are anything to go by. Origin
A version of this proverb was known by the 3rd century BC. Quintus Ennius wrote: 'Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur'. This translates from the Latin as 'a sure friend is known when in difficulty'. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists it as existing in English from the 11th century. The earliest version I can find is from Caxton's Sonnes of Aymon, 1489: "It is sayd, that at the nede the frende is knowen."