The Needful

matthew's picture
2010-07-12-The_Needful

There it is again. Lurking in my email inbox like a tiger hunting its prey. Giggling at me behind the veil of gentility, mocking me. Smirking at me during meetings, provoking me unintentionally with both its ubiquitousness and fundamental inaccuracy. I know I should ignore it, yet I cannot. It draws me like a moth to a flame, like Homer Simpson to a caramel bologna sandwich. It's compelling, and yet... so, so wrong.

The Needful.

"File system /db0a1 is 98% full. Please do the needful."

"Yes, will you please do the needful to fix this?"

"The needful is to overwrite the existing files with..."

Yes, those two little words. The. Needful. The word "The", by itself, is innocuous! One of the most common words in the English language. "Needful", too, by itself has nothing wrong with it. It is an adjective, a part of speech used to describe a given thing as necessary, or required. Put it together with a noun, such as "thing", or "actions", or, well, really, any noun you wish; it is innocuous and descriptive. "The Needful Thing". Just the kind of word a proper adjective should be.

And yet today, particularly in corporate technology cultures dominated by non-native speakers, it is a phrase that has acquired life of its own, devoid of the noun it was supposed to support. It's as if, somewhere along the line, "The" and "Needful" just chucked the noun out of the stationwagon at fifty miles and hour, shouted "So long, sucker!" in unison, and left it in the dust at the side of the road near Silicon Valley as they sped up to match the flow of traffic along highway 101. I think they probably whipped out a handgun and peppered a few cars with bullets in their new-found catalystic freedom. Teenagers, you know. What can you do about their youthful exuberance?

So The and Needful together decided that they were a noun, with all the rights and privileges thereof, and found a fertile breeding ground for this point of view in the lexicon of technical workers. And in so doing, they continually irritate language purists everywhere. I include myself in that distinguished and geriatric association, despite my frequent and painful abuses of the language.

Every time I see these emails in my inbox, my brain automatically substitutes the word "thing" after "the needful", with another person-shaped rubber stamp used on a stray neuron to up the counter of times I've seen that particular phrase.

Yet when I hear or read the phrase "The Needful", in absence of a noun, a part of me wants to whip out my patent-pending Foam-Rubber Clue-Bat of Righteousness and whack the user over the head repeatedly, while shouting "Where is the noun, man, where is he? Just chucked him out of the car, did you, without a second thought for his safety? You will pay for your treachery!"

I suspect my incarceration would be swift even if short, and I would be introduced to more abuses of language than my ears care to hear. Alas, the Clue-Bat should remain safely hidden in the upstairs closet next to my 1988 Mako-branded generic electric guitar purchased at Victor Litz Music near Lakeforest Mall for $75.00. There among the dusty belongings The Bat cries out to be used, vigilante-style, against this violation of the language. But in this age of litigiousness, it is better to simply pull it out late at night, the candlelight illuminating the beaded sweat on my forehead as I murmer "My Precious" and slowly thwack the hefty Clue-Bat against my damp left palm.

"The Needful". Ugh.

What is to be done?

EDIT by matthew: OK, obviously I need to explain what this essay is about. Dangit. Anyway, in the technical field you get a lot of "jargon". The latest jargon, predominantly in use by non-native-speakers, seems to be using the phrase "Please do the needful" instead of "Please take care of this", "Please help resolve this problem", or the more mundane "Dude, it's broken, fix it". I guess I assumed it was more widespread than it actually is, or that more people have experience working with non-native-English-speakers in technical fields who tend to use shortcuts when they talk. Hope that explains it a little.

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weed's picture

It's So Sad

It's a horrible thing to be on the outside of an inside joke...

My $.02
Weed

My $.02
Weed

Ben's picture

Needful Things

That was a good movie and stuff... all Ed Harris and junk.

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Ben Schuman
Mad, Mad Tenor

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Ben

christy's picture

I'm in the same boat

I don't have a clue either. He sure makes it sound dirty, though, huh?--

Christy

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Christy

matthew's picture

I guess...

I guess it's not a phrase you hear much unless you are around a lot of Asian non-native speakers. "Please do the needful". It's just annoying :) Thanks for reading my rant!

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Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

the needful

greatness! have you heard/read this one: "please look into the same" ?

matthew's picture

That's on the list

Oh, yeah. "Please look into same", instead of "please look into this" or "please look into it", is right up there on the list of phrases that annoy my inner language lawyer. In its defense, though, it's actually correct English, weirdly used for the US English lexicon, and not a hijacking of an adjective into a noun. Still odd, though :)

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

Ben's picture

argh

I still want to punch whatever jerk decided that "liaise" was a verb.

--
Ben Schuman
Mad, Mad Tenor

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Ben

matthew's picture

Nuanced

Although I know the word is actually a real word, "nuanced" as the adjective-of-the-day (particularly talking about foreign policy matters) rubs me the wrong way. For instance, Nicholas Kristof, writer for the New York Times, said the situation in Iraq is a "deeply nuanced mess, etched in shades of gray." Kerry attempting to clarify his "nuanced positions" in the presidential race. Among others.

A political position isn't "nuanced" unless it is to be compared to, and subtly different from, another. The situation in Iraq isn't "nuanced". There's nothing to compare it to, so "nuance" is irrelevant. It seems to me that "complex", "varied", "unstable", "deep", and many other words fit, but "nuanced" sure sounds like someone trying to sound intelligent and using an in-vogue word when they have no idea what it actually means. Or else using it in place of "subtle" or "requires long thought".

Like the use of the word "ironic" after Alanis Morisette's famous 1995 song which included no irony in it at all. The ironic thing was that people got on her case for using the word "ironic" without it being correct. And I think the actual irony of the song was that there was nothing ironic within it. She must be brilliant :)

I'm done :)

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Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

i googled "please do the needful"

i've seen this phrase in e-mail just like you. it irritates the <bleep!> out of me.

not in public

please do the needful....

at my desk?
in public?
you could get arrested or fired....
perhaps one might respond with.... "how dare you ask me that... i'm reporting you to HR"....

You're not alone

You ain't alone. We get this phrase quite often from folks in India.

A quick search on http://www.

A quick search on http://www.m-w.com, "needful" is both a adjective and a noun, now I am confused.

matthew's picture

Smells like

Merriam-Webster is well-known, if I recall correctly, for adding words to the lexicon rather "hastily" compared to some other dictionaries. I'm guessing they added the noun due to current usage in exactly the context I'm complaining about. This adjective has been transformed into a noun through capricious, ignorant usage.

Which, of course, means that now usage of "needful" as a noun will continue to spiral out of control in mainstream society. I'm powerless to stop it! Protest rallies! The dead rising from the grave! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!

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Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

paul@murphymaphia.com's picture

MW

So what your saying is that M-W is famous for doing the capricious?

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Visit my blog, eh!
The Murphy Maphia

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*This signature is an experiment in Google Bombing
mot propre

matthew's picture

Beware the bat!

Beware, the Foam-Rubber Cluebat of Righteousness has your name etched on the side now.

I used a soldering iron.

MWAHAHAHAH!

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

Do some research

You've gotten it exactly backwards -- "do the needful" is not a neologism. It's a quaint old phrase, suggestive of the 1940s. It was used by the British in India before India won its independence, and after the British left India the phrase didn't die out there the way it did elsewhere.

Something similar happened with many words used in American English -- for example "Fall" (meaning the season that leaves fall from the trees) was used in Britain during colonial times, but subsequently disappeared in favor of "Autumn". But we Americans, unmoored from British influence on our language, kept "Fall".

For evidence of "do the needful"'s antiquity, see this archived Time magazine article from 1949. The article quotes John Foster Dulles saying "...I think we are now in a good way to do the needful quickly."

matthew's picture

May have to redraft...

I may have to redraft my little opinion piece then; instead of characterizing "please do the needful" as a bizarre, irritating phrase creeping into the American lexicon, I'll have to classify it as a bizarre, irritating phrase creeping back, once more into the American lexicon :) Nevertheless, the lack of a noun in this everday phrase still bugs me. The feeling is similar to watching someone pick a scab and eat it in public. It's their scab. They can do with it whatever they want. But oh, how it offends the sensibilities, and I surely wish they wouldn't.

Note:I've always intended this op-ed as a humorous piece; I hope that shows, but I suspect it's in the same vein of humor as the jokes I made when a child. I'd follow some small event out to its ultimate conclusion, then make a joke based upon that ultimate event, and nobody would get it. Or I'd think of a perfect riposte two weeks after being insulted. Or sometimes, I'd even simply play a joke out in my mind, and laugh aloud with company, and be unable to explain the joke. Come to think of it, I commonly do that today, too...

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Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

paul@murphymaphia.com's picture

perhaps

Perhaps this was popular in British India in the 40's because of the same reason it made its way into the language again this time.
Non-native English speakers. I don't know anything about the syntax and symantics of the languages in India but I would suspect that they, like many other non-germanic and non-latin languages, don't requre the use of a subject in a sentence.
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Visit my blog, eh!
The Murphy Maphia

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*This signature is an experiment in Google Bombing
mot propre

syntax and sEmantics. There

syntax and sEmantics. There should be a Sin Tax for spelling mistakes.

matthew's picture

Corporations...

Bless 'em, but "Symantec" has done more to popularize the misspelling of "semantic" than any person on earth, I suspect...

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

paul@murphymaphia.com's picture

nice...

Like you couldn't just edit my post :)

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Visit my blog, eh!
The Murphy Maphia

--------
*This signature is an experiment in Google Bombing
mot propre

matthew's picture

deprivation...

What, and deprive future visitors of endless entertainment making jokes about spelling mistakes?

I already learned my lesson about that. If I go correct someone, I seem to always leave something out, making the confusion even greater...

(Note: the confusion in that post before was that I fixed the name, but not the later reference to "RLDS". Since half the discussion fixated on the use of the wrong acronym, all context would have been lost had I further edited it for clarification. There's a reason newspapers publish corrections in later editions, rather than trying to go back and fix what they've already published...)

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

we recently outsourced a numb

we recently outsourced a number of functions to Bangalore. I received an email that requested I "do the needful", and it made me crazy. Glad it ain't just me

Trust me, it's everywhere...

We deal with several India-based corporations and we are constantly bombarded with this phrase at least 12-15 times per day. It has been noticed at other locations as well.

I know this is an older post, but hey, I felt that I should do the needful and respond.

Ugh is right.

matthew's picture

I'm back!

I'm back at the same company where I regularly encountered this phrase (it's a long story, don't ask). I'm doing night shifts. Supporting our -- you guessed it -- subcontinent-based development team.

I'm seeing it now, constantly. All night long. And my friends over there on the other side of the planet even constantly MISSPELL it, putting two Ls on "needful". "Please do the needfull". Add the offense of this adjective-less phrase to the discomfort of seeing an improperly spelled word, and it's the language-lawyer equivalent of constipation paired with horrible gas. I have to do something, but I'm incapable of doing anything about it... Oh, the pain!

--
Matthew P. Barnson

(Reminder: every post of mine in this thread is tongue-in-cheek. It really doesn't bug me that much, but it's fun to play with language. I'd go so far as to say, for me, that language is addictive. I mean, I use it constantly, and whenever I'm not using it, I'm thinking about it. How addictive is that?)

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Matthew P. Barnson

"Do the Needful" Apparel

This site sells t-shirts, bags, hats and underwear with the "Do the Needful" logo.....

https://www.cafepress.com/theneedful

matthew's picture

On one level...

You know, on one level, I find that totally hilarious. Mainly because there are a bunch of shirts advertised there which proudly advertise:

"MADE IN THE USA"

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

I feel so much better!

Well, it's 2am here and I just got *another* email asking me to "do the needfull".

Now, like so many of us, I'm used to interpreting all sorts of requests with no hassle whatsoever, providing they have some connection to English and, as someone pointed out (making so much sense), this is originally an English phrase *anyway*, so it's not that the meaning is not crystal clear, it's just...so...annoying!

I had no idea why this particular phrase grated on me so much, but decided that I had to search for more information. I found this thread and I feel so much better, knowing that I'm not alone!

It's like a support group for those who scream abuse at their inbox on a regular basis over this one little (incomplete) phrase, yet at the same time knowing that this behaviour is seriously out of all proportion, when the situation is considered in full.

I love that there are even t-shirts dedicated to this phenomenon.

Thanks for making my night a bit more tolerable...and fun :-)

Claire

Please Deal

I'm very familiar with that phrase and one or two others. When I was a sysadmin I used to get emails like: startrec has run out of disk space. Please deal.

Please Deal? That would send me into a rage. I dealt with it all right. I emailed the luser back and told him I'd deleted all his files.

ha! i was just researching the same ;)

it's not annoying! it's actually kinda cute, and definitely hilarious. i had gotten it again yesterday (it was something of an inside joke w/ our coworkers) but then i decided to google "please do the needful" yesterday...tons of results (this being the first, lol) -- most of them indian/asian websites with comments. my favorite is "please do the needful for me and the people"

now we know that "engrish" is in vogue--i wonder if anyone has started any "indelish" sites?

sweet fact:)

sweet fact:)

there is plenty of indian speech that is british. i understand the history there; i always find it interesting though.

it's still funny--'cos i know of no brits currently in the US stressing the need to do the needful

j.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!

Forgive me for my late arrival, but I only just discovered your rant and felt compelled to join in. I've been seeing this phrase creeping into my emails lately, and wondered where it was coming from.

Given all the comments about the subcontinent I found this Indian food web site interesting: www.sanjeevkapoor.com/faq/default.asp.

Check out the very last sentence: "Please mention the name and delivery address of the person to whom you want to gift the books and we will do the needful."

"To gift"???

EDIT by matthew: Linked.

matthew's picture

Believe it or not...

Believe it or not, "to gift" is correct English, if weird-sounding to American ears. In American English, we'd probably say "to give as a gift" instead.

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Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

Doing the Needful

You're very kind to not disclose the continental source of this phrase, but the majority of those from which I've heard it come from India. Yes, it's slang as far as we're concerned, but it has to be a direct translation from its source into English. Most of my experience working with technical people from India has proven to me that diction is of the utmost importance until about year 5 of being in the US.

Doing the 'needful' is not

Doing the 'needful' is not difficult to understand albeit quite annoying. It's the 'flibby flabby floopy' and 'da da diddy doot' that often follow the phrase that has me scratching my head.

do the needful

We see this all the time where I work to.

At first it was funny, reminded us, for some odd reason (esp. since none of us are old enough to have actually done the dance), of the hustle. But after a while it gets very irritating.

Another favorite of mine is "they will be stepping on my neck". Now it took me a while to get that what is being said is "they are going to strangle me".

I think this is a perfect example of why so many American customers that find themselves speaking to a rep that does not speak American (let's be honest, we don't really speak true "English" as proven when we try to talk to someone from England), get so frustrated. Because those reps are really very nice to talk to, it's the language barrier that seems to send everyone into a rant.

Ahh, I needed that laugh. I

Ahh, I needed that laugh. I knew I couldn't be the only personal driven mad by this. "I need access, please do the needful at the earliest" You can do the needful all you want buddy, just keep it off my servers.

LOL, kinda

Adding my voice to the chorus of chuckles. Being a sysadmin, supporting lots of developers, I've been driven semi-mad by this phrase for years now. Stumbling across this page just confirms that EVERYTHING is already online. Loved the t-shirt site, too.

I always thought of this as a great song title, a la "Do The Hustle". Any aspiring artists out there want to make a fortune by recording "Do The Needful!" ?

ACK

Have you ever been acknowledged for an e-mail with "ACK"

doing the same is not correct english

When it does not specify what the same is referring to (when it could be a number of things). In fact, it is horrible english.

How about this one "please

How about this one "please clarify my doubts"... I see that all the time :)

matthew's picture

Never seen it.

"please clarify my doubts"

Nope, never seen it in my entire life until just now. Is that a Subcontinent-based phrase, or something else?

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

'The needful' revisited

No offence intended, but even if one is a native speaker, it is advisable to check some *authoritative* sources before concluding that something is wrong and even risible!

The following is from Oxford English Dictionary.
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needful, a.1 and n.

3. With the. a. That which is necessary or requisite. Chiefly in to do the needful.
1709 R. STEELE Tatler No. 78 {page}7 If you want any further Particulars..let me know, and per first will advise the needful. 1710 J. LOVETT Let. 1 Apr. in M. M. Verney Verney Lett. (1930) I. xii. 210 Waiting on proper persons and doing the needful in all places. c1771 S. FOOTE Maid of Bath II. 39 Lady Cath:..Prepare the minister and aw the rest of the taickle... Flint:..I may directly set about getting the needful. 1822 M. EDGEWORTH Let. 27 Jan. (1971) 338, I resolved to write..only 3 or 4 lines just to say the needful. 1831 SCOTT Jrnl. 24 Apr. (1946) 164 Young Clarkson had already done the needful{em}that is, had bled & blisterd severely, and placed me on a very restrictd [sic] diet. 1865 F. LOCKER-LAMPSON Select. from Wks. 155 This cloth will dip, And make a famous pair{em}get Snip To do the needful. 1929 I. COLVIN Life of Dyer xvii. 167 The conspirators at Delhi..sent orders..‘to look out and do the needful at once’. 1993 J. TORRINGTON Swing Hammer Swing! xiii. 118, I went over to the drinks cabinet to do the needful.
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matthew's picture

Quoting a dictionary...

Three points:

1. Read the whole thread. You're duplicating others work.
2. Quoting the dictionary is useful in those cases when you are attempting to ascertain the meaning of a word, or when a dispute can be quickly resolved by someone realizing their definition is entirely inappropriate. It is not useful when it is the meaning of the word itself which is in dispute. Canonization of a definition within a dictionary is helpful, but no more than an appeal to authority when it is used to attempt to settle an argument.
3. This essay and most of the my comments are tongue-in-cheek.

--
Matthew P. Barnson

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Matthew P. Barnson

>duplicating others

>duplicating others work

others'

matthew's picture

Cheeky....

others'

Cheeky drive-by.

--
Matthew P. Barnson

--
Matthew P. Barnson

"The Needful"

This was absolutely hysterical, I have been requested to "do the needful" on many an occasion. I see it so much I have begun to use the term. Some other favorites:

Kindly revert back
Thanking you

Put your stuff in my shoes

...my favorite saying, by someone who also uses the phrase "Do the Needful" at my company.

Check out this one...

http://www.DoTheNeedfulstuff.com/

You think "do the needful" is annoying...

...what about updation? For example: "I've attached the data fix script. Please do the needful updation."

A bunch of us got a kick out of this entry. We've recently been joking about both do the needful and updation, so it really struck a chord with us.

Needfully bad use of needful!

HA! I just found this page after looking up WTF "I shall do the needful" meant. I got that message twice in two days and the first day thought it was a typo, and figured the second day that it was not a typo. In my google search, I did find that this phrase shows up in Chaucer...but that doesn't mean it makes any sense or that it's a good thing. Thank you for this awesome essay!