Do the Needful.

Over at Wordorigins.org, donkeyhotay asked about “do the needful,” saying “My understanding is that this is an archaic phrase and that South Asians use it because of the time period that English was introduced into their culture.” Dave Wilton said that was correct, adding: “Indian or South Asian English is a perfectly legitimate dialect of English. Do the needful is not archaic or obsolescent in Indian English, although it is in North American and (I think) British English.” Which made me curious: is it indeed archaic or obsolescent in British English? Do any of my UK readers use it or hear it used? (Obviously speakers of other forms of English are welcome to chime in as well.)

If you’re curious about the OED citations, I posted them in my comment at that link; they start with 1681 (“My last to you was by Mr. Clayton in which I writt you the needfull”) and end with 1992 (“I went over to the drinks cabinet to do the needful”).

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I might conceivably hear “Do the needful” in British English if it was clearly jocular, or imlitating a particular person’s way of speaking, but not otherwise.

  2. It sounds to me like something Bertie Wooster might say.

  3. Yes, I associate it strongly with Wodehouse.

  4. I’m reading Jo Walton’s 2015 novel ‘Just City’, and variations of doing the needful appear in it.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Isn’t a standard stereotype of IndEng that its speakers tend to say remarkably Wodehousian-sounding things without actually meaning to sound either comical or archaic?

  6. Trond Engen says:

    It could work well as a euphemism.

  7. @Trond Engen: I agree. “I went over to the drinks cabinet to do the needful,” sounds like he went to urinate in a gin bottle.

  8. Jonathan Wright says:

    I’m a British English speaker and I would agree that it has a slightly jocular, deliberately evasive or euphemistic tone to it. But it wouldn’t call it archaic or even obsolescent. You might not find it so much in print because of the importance of the tone. I expect I have said it myself from time to time, with a hint of the underhand or legally dubious about whatever needed to be done

  9. Advocacy for Indianisms from the Grauniad. The comments are actually worth reading (or at least skimming, I don’t mean they’re up to LH standard) for once.

  10. Jonathan Wright: Thanks, that’s a convincing analysis.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Jonathan Wright’s feeling coincides pretty exactly with mine. I agree that it’s not obsolescent.

  12. I grew up here in NZ using the phrase lot and considering it perfectly natural. I guess that’s courtesy of my Anglo-Indian single father. I suspect that in most NZE idiolects, it would be considered quaint, at the very least.

  13. Haven’t heard it used here in Australia

  14. urinate in a gin bottle: “The Grand Duke then left the room on an errand he could not delegate”.

  15. Keeping the adjective and dropping the noun. I associate this kind of usage with the Victorian era, but extending into the Bertie Wooster era. My grandfather (born 1886) used to do this. You can find it in Dickens. One example that got normalised was “tripping the light fantastic”. What Milton actually said was “Com, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastick toe.” (L’Allegro) However the phrase was popularised by an American song, Sidewalks of New York.

    Keeping the adjective and dropping the noun. It’s the basic structure found in a lot of rhyming slang: mate -> china plate, he’s my old china.

    I think you could find it in Australian usage, at least historically. Plus in Australian usage, sometimes adj adj noun was first reduced to adj adj, then the adjectives were replaced by their first letters to form an initialism. I couldn’t supply an example without spending a lot of time combing through dictionaries of Australian slang. This usage would be about 100 years ago. I don’t think it’s still functional.

    I have not noticed Indians using this “keeping the adjective and dropping the noun” formation in general, just with this one particular phrase. But clearly some Indianisms date back to the heyday of the Raj, like being “out of station”.

  16. @John Cowan: The best comment on that Graun piece I’ve read so far: “Is prepone the same as postpone?”

  17. I’ll admit that prepone brings to my mind the 2000s leetspeak term pwn. (I imagine something like, “We’ve got a special offer on noobs: they come pre-pwned!”) That said, it does form a neat symmetry.

    @maidhc: There’s also Tesco’s slogan “Every little helps” – which took me aback when I first encountered it.

  18. “Prepone” on LH in 2003.

  19. I ran across this phrase in the Sophie Wilkins translation of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities earlier this week. I noted it as odd in that context because I’d previously encountered it only in anecdotes told by my French-American wife, who for a time worked closely with Indian customer service reps.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    “We’ve got a special offer on noobs: they come pre-pwned!”

    Thread, as they say, won.

    There’s also Tesco’s slogan “Every little helps” – which took me aback when I first encountered it.

    Ah, that’s unsettling in the same way as SOO! MUSS TECHNIK, a slogan of the electronics store Saturn, using a construction that is grammatical in some part of (south?)western Germany but wholly unknown elsewhere (“thisss! is how technology must [be]”). The only other time I’ve encountered it is on a billboard advertising the biography of the band Die Toten Hosen, titled Ja, das muss so laut!.

  21. I’ve asked my English, they don’t recognise the phrase as current. Understandable, but never used.

  22. David, what is ungrammatical about that construction – the omission of “sein” or something else?

  23. I’m fairly sure I’ve heard my father say “did the needful” for “stumped up the cash”; which would blend OED senses 3a and 3b.

    Official letters from public servants, lawyers, etc., to members of the public are popularly infamous for containing formulations not found in other registers; Indian Business English using “do the needful” is a cousin of this.

    The verb “bash” in the sense “mug; assault violently” is informal in my dialect but used in non-tabloid news reports in Australia.

    “Every little helps” on Language Log in 2008 with comments from Hat and me.

  24. David, what is ungrammatical about that construction – the omission of “sein” or something else?
    Yes. Normally, müssen requires an infinitive complement. There are only two standardized exceptions – müssen plus an indication of direction, where an implied verb of movement is omitted (e.g. ich muss nach Berlin lit. “I need to Berlin”, meaning “I need to go to Berlin”) and müssen without a complement, meaning “to have to urinate / defecate, to have to go to the toilet”. As David said, the omission of the infinitive in contexts besides that is non-standard, but part of colloquial language. From David’s post I note that such constructions don’t seem to be part of colloquial German in Austria, while I (raised in Western and Northern Germany) wouldn’t bat an eyelid at them when I see them in speech; I don’t know how much they are limited regionally.

  25. So you can’t say Ich muss in reply to a question about the necessity for doing something (cf. English I must), you have to have a verb?

  26. @John Cowan: I am not a native German speaker, but that construction sounds fine to me. As in:

    A: Brauchst du nach hause zu gehen?
    B: Ja, ich muss.

  27. Sir JCass says:

    Lohengrin: “Ich muß, ich muß, mein süßes Weib!” (Lohengrin, Act 3).

  28. Sure, but that’s pushing two centuries ago. Can germanophones today do it? I note that BrE-speakers are saying things like “I must do” nowadays, though I don’t think it’s mandatory (yet).

  29. I thought that went way back in BrE. Is it an innovation?

  30. @John Cowan: yes, such an ellipsis of the infinitive in a response is possible. I was only talking about cases where the activity described by the infinitive hadn’t been mentioned yet.

  31. David Marjanović says:

    Normally, müssen requires an infinitive complement. There are only two standardized exceptions –

    I would rather say that, in English, modal verbs need to be accompanied by another verb; in German, they need to be accompanied by something semantically appropriate, so that müssen needs to be accompanied by an obligation which may or may not contain a verb, and können needs to be accompanied by an ability which may or may not contain a verb, so that by default you “can” rather than “speak” or “know” or “have” a language.

    müssen without a complement, meaning “to have to urinate / defecate, to have to go to the toilet”.

    That’s short for aufs Klo müssen, with a direction (lacking a verb) as its complement.

    …which leads us straight into philosophy, to the wise saying müssen tut man aufs Klo. It’s a topic-and-comment sentence, which makes it surprisingly hard to translate into English. I’m tempted to try “‘must’ is what you do with a toilet”, but that doesn’t make sense, does it? An explanation, rather than strictly a translation, would be “going to the toilet is inevitable; everything else is really optional”. (Even death and taxes.)

    So you can’t say Ich muss in reply to a question about the necessity for doing something (cf. English I must), you have to have a verb?

    No, you don’t need to repeat the verb or the obligation there; I’m talking specifically about “this is how X must be”. Interestingly, “this is how X belongs” translates straightforwardly as so gehört X without any further verb.

    A: Brauchst du nach hause zu gehen?
    B: Ja, ich muss.

    A: Musst du nach Hause?
    B: Ja.

    It is very uncommon to repeat the verb in a yes-or-no answer. In fact, I’m still surprised English does it so often; Mandarin repeats the verb for “yes” because there is no word for “yes”…

    I’m not sure why brauchen is wrong here. It is, though.

    Where I come from, gehen doesn’t mean “go”, it means “walk”, and it would be downright wrong to specify that when fahren “to go on wheels, by ship, to hell, or up into heaven” would be more likely to be appropriate. That may be different farther north, where laufen, elsewhere “run”, means “walk”; the aisle in the buses of Berlin is officially called Laufgang, amusing me to no end.

    Lohengrin: “Ich muß, ich muß, mein süßes Weib!”

    Other than the spelling (muß > muss), all that’s outdated here is the word Weib (back then “woman”, nowadays “woman I don’t like”). The context makes clear what he must: ditch her, or at least go away and leave her behind (Jetzt muss ich, ach! von dir geschieden sein! five lines earlier: “now must I, woe!, be separated > divorced from thee”) because she tore down his secret like a building (Was rissest du nun mein Geheimnis ein?) for the sake of the rhyme. Oh well.

  32. Where I come from, gehen doesn’t mean “go”, it means “walk”, and it would be downright wrong to specify that when fahren “to go on wheels, by ship, to hell, or up into heaven” would be more likely to be appropriate.

    Very Slavic! One of the basic things it’s hard for English-speakers to learn in Russian is the corresponding strict separation between идти/ходить ‘go on foot, walk’ and ехать/ездить ‘go by any other means (except flying).’

  33. David Marjanović says:

    Very Slavic!

    Yes, except… don’t you swim by ship in Russian?

  34. You can ехать на пароходе.

  35. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    Same with Swedish, ‘walk, go by foot’ and åka ‘go by car, train, other means’. As a learner of Swedish from English, I often said when åka was more appropriate.

  36. @David Marjanović: You’re right. There’s something about having brauchen and gehen together there that makes that sentence feel off. My mind was skipping back and forth between German and English when I wrote that, and the German part was concentrating on the grammaticality of the “ich muss” construction. (The English, “Do you need to walk home?” is fine.)

  37. In Early Modern English, we have things like “I grant I never saw a goddess go / My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground”, where go is a synonym (somewhat rhyme-forced, of course) for walk, and unnatural in ModE. (Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, my very favorite.)

    My understanding is that simple Ja is unemphatic, more like “I guess”, or “I’m afraid I have to”. Or is that yet another case of (as Stu called it) Gegen(d)beispiel?

  38. That’s short for aufs Klo müssen, with a direction (lacking a verb) as its complement.
    My point was that you don’t even need the directional complement any more; the meaning has become lexicalised – this meaning is the default interpretation for any müssen without complement where context doesn’t suggest a different interpretation.
    No, you don’t need to repeat the verb or the obligation there
    You don’t have to, but you can, and you can repeat either only the modal verb or together with the obligation. As you say, repeating is much more marked than in English, and for me the order of markedness would be (unmarked) Ja, more marked Ja, ich muss, very marked Ja, ich muss gehen.
    I’m not sure why brauchen is wrong here. It is, though.
    Thanks, I wasn’t sure whether it was only me, so I didn’t comment on that. For me, brauchen as a modal verb only works in negative declarative sentences, so Du brauchst nicht nach Hause (zu) gehen (the zu is not needed in colloquial German) is fine, but as a positive sentence or a question it doesn’t work. But I’m not sure whether these restrictions apply for all speakers.
    Where I come from, gehen doesn’t mean “go”, it means “walk”, and it would be downright wrong to specify that when fahren “to go on wheels, by ship, to hell, or up into heaven” would be more likely to be appropriate. That may be different farther north, where laufen, elsewhere “run”, means “walk”
    Not too different up North here – yes, laufen means “walk” besides “run”, but you’d use gehen normally only when actual walking is involved, and when English-speaking friends say something like “morgen gehe ich nach Berlin”, one can tease them saying “Oh, you want to walk the entire 600 km?”. The only contexts where gehen for changes of locations can be used independent of the mode of transport is 1) when it’s about attending events or institutions, so “ins Theater gehen” or “zur Schule / Arbeit gehen” don’t imply walking, and 2) when it’s about careers or longer-term changes of residence, mostly with indication of career or duration (“Er geht für fünf Jahe nach New York”, “Schweinsteiger geht nach England”). Can you use gehen like this in Austria?

  39. I see it being used here (Mauritius) all the time, alonsgide the irritating “same” used to mean “it” (the matter in question, which sometimes isn’t even mentioned before). I suppose we’ve been contaminated by India.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Siganus: the irritating “same” used to mean “it” (the matter in question) … contaminated by India

    I don’t know about Indian English but I remember something like this usage in the speech of some characters in Dickens when I was taking courses in English literature. Not just as a replacement for “it” but also for “he/she/him/her”. If I remember correctly (from decades ago), it seemed to occur in the speech of semi-educated characters, in talking about relative strangers in a semi-formal context: for instance a policeman describing his interaction with a member of the public, as in “… so I said to same: …..”. I think I was particularly struck by this in Pickwick Papers where I think I first encountered it.

    Lately it occurred to me that “same” was filling the gap currently occupied (up to a point) by “singular they”, but was perhaps too archaic to be a modern candidate for the position.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    JC, is that Navy style?

  42. I don’t think so particularly; it’s one of a long tradition of terse telegrams, though it was a radio transmission. I’m sure the pilot was pleased by the alliteration and couldn’t control himself.

  43. marie-lucie says:

    Same idea as veni, vidi, vici.

    The Romans were fond of this sort of thing, to write on medals and other conspicuous things and places.

  44. David Marjanović says:

    My understanding is that simple Ja is unemphatic, more like “I guess”, or “I’m afraid I have to”. Or is that yet another case of (as Stu called it) Gegen(d)beispiel?

    Ja can be quite emphatic; it’s what you say when you get married (unless you’ve watched a lot of dubbed Hollywood series). Rather than ja, ich muss, I say ja, (das) muss ich when I need enough emphasis to counter negative expectations. Next higher up would be things like ja, ich muss jetzt wirklich gehen, straightforwardly “yes, I really have to go now” – or, with a direction instead of the verb, ja, ich muss jetzt wirklich weg “yes, I really have to leave now”.

    1) when it’s about attending events or institutions, so “ins Theater gehen” or “zur Schule / Arbeit gehen” don’t imply walking

    I think that’s restricted to fixed phrases for me: zur Schule gehen, more colloquially in die Schule gehen, means “to be a primary-/secondary-school student”, “to attend school”, rather than the actual locomotion, for which gehen or fahren are used as fits the concrete case.

    2) when it’s about careers or longer-term changes of residence, mostly with indication of career or duration (“Er geht für fünf Jahe nach New York”, “Schweinsteiger geht nach England”). Can you use gehen like this in Austria?

    Certainly in writing. Otherwise, I’d say it’s avoided: “Er ist die nächsten fünf Jahre in New York”, “er übersiedelt für fünf Jahre nach New York”…

    terse telegrams

    Great liberties with grammar were taken in German at such occasions: ich komme an was, apparently, routinely turned into ankomme

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Very Slavic

    Very Germanic, I’d say. English is the odd man out here.

  46. Trond Engen says:

    Norw.:

    Må du hjem?
    Trenger du (å) gå hjem?

    Some omits from the latter sentence, my sister for one, but it’s not common enough to leave a discernible trace on Google*. This is when the sentence contains the phrasal verb gå hjem “go home”. If you stress , the meaning changes to “walk home”, and that obviously can’t be expressed by omitting the verb.

    *) Omitting å “to” from the latter is pretty standard, but curiously some keep it even when omitting . Trenger du å hjem gave exactly one Ghit.

  47. müssen needs to be accompanied by an obligation

    This is just barely possible in English poetry: John Masefield’s “Sea-Fever” (1902) begins “I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky / And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” In the 1923 Collected Poems it was changed to “I must go down”, which in my opinion puts a false stress on must, but the two other occurrences of “I must down” in the poem were left unchanged, so I would guess it was a hypercorrection by some editor.

    it’s what you say when you get married

    Hollywood has anglophones saying “I do”, but the Socinian who married us used a form that had us saying “I will”, which in cases like this expresses intention rather than simple futurity. That made it technically per verba de futuro rather than de praesenti, but neither we nor he cared. Marriage or betrothal, it’s what the certificate of marriage says that counts. And of course what’s in our hearts.

    Coming up on our 37th anniversary this Hallowe’en.

  48. Very Slavic!

    This is a broad generalisation about Slavic languages. In Croatian, ići (to go) is the main verb of motion. Of course if you want to be more specific, you can say “hodati” (to walk), “trčati” (to run), “voziti” (drive eg. a car or bicycle), “jahati” (ride eg. a horse) etc. just like in English, and nothing like Russian.

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