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One example comes from this song in "the Music Man."

Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana
Gary, Indiana, let me say it once again
Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana
Gary, Indiana, that's the town that knew me WHEN.

Another example comes from a friend who met Taylor Swift at age 13, before she became famous, and therefore knew her "when."

The meaning of "when" is something like, before one became established or famous.

But what is the context/appropriate expression of it? Is it something like "when I was young..."?

(On the other hand, if someone is young AND famous, then it's no longer "when.")

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  • "When" can be completely contextual...when someone was young, when someone was single, when someone was a starving artist. You'd really need to understand the context to which "when" refers. As for if someone is young and famous, when could be before they were famous (but obviously, still young). Jun 12 '14 at 18:39
  • It's just a cut-down version of what's more commonly expressed as way back when - a time in the distant past. Jun 12 '14 at 19:53
  • @fumbleFingers: Yes, "way back when" or "long, long ago."
    – Tom Au
    Jun 12 '14 at 20:03
  • @Tom: Not sure if it's more a BrE thing, but I'm more likely to speak of back in the day (which as Cambridge says there, is more associated with positive connotations). To me, [way back] when is effectively "neutral", but since I've hardly ever heard it without way back, maybe I'm just a bit out of touch with how the one-word version is now being used. Jun 12 '14 at 20:16
  • "When" used in this way is, I believe, entirely AmE.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 12 '14 at 22:57
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"I knew [him/her] when" is an idiom in English. It is not about the speaker's age (I knew her when I was young is not an idiom.) It is more about a defining event or series of events in the life (no matter how young) of the person about whom you are speaking. One dictionary defines it as

At an earlier and less prosperous time. "He's mister high and mighty now, but I remember him when."

On May 22, 2007, a video of a young boy and his younger brother was uploaded to YouTube. The young boy (Harry Davies-Carr) is holding his little brother Charlie on his lap. Harry explains that Charlie bit him, and puts his finger in Charlie's mouth to demonstrate. Charlie bites him again, to no one's surprise. Only this time it hurts!

The video went viral, and has been seen over 720 million times. Harry and Charlie became minor celebrities. Though Harry was a young child when the video was uploaded, anyone who knew Harry and Charlie before the video went viral can rightfully claim:

I knew Harry and Charlie when!

The video is really cute. If you haven't seen it, do watch it.

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  • I don't think [way back] when has any significant overtones of "less prosperous". It's probably just as likely to be used of earlier times when the speaker was younger and more vigorous, with positive connotations. Jun 12 '14 at 19:56
  • Perhaps. I knew him when is not commonly used of an unknown poverty-striken person who used to be famous and wealthy. Lots of people knew him then. I knew him when implies a time when relatively few people knew him. Jun 12 '14 at 20:02
  • @FumbleFingers: Yes, "way back when" works. But there is an element of "way back when..." things weren't so good as today.
    – Tom Au
    Jun 12 '14 at 20:05
  • Well yes, but that's surely because of one likely context where you might say you knew someone a long time ago. But a bunch of people eking out their twilight years in a run-down nursing home might just as easily reminisce about how good their earlier lives were, way back when [they were young, wealthy, and in good health]. I think your interpretation of the connotations is more a reflection of your personal attitude to the past than anything inherent in the idiom itself. Jun 12 '14 at 20:09
  • Agreed, but I knew him when is not typically used in those situations, whereas way back when is often used that way. However, OP asked about "I knew him when", not "When would you use way back when?" ') Jun 12 '14 at 20:12

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