The Needful

matthew's picture

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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Right on.....

Awesome article. We have this conversation at my work all the time...

"It seems the mercfcc eventserver is not stopped and started once the promotion is done.
Please do the needful. Otherwise the new code changes will not be reflected."

"I am very sorry, it looks like my instructions for this map are incorrect. msl also need to be deployed for BizMercPair map. Please can you do the needful. We will update the deployment document later."

"I get the following error:
Infosys_ds_CalculateCreditableCoverage_sp.sql, Could not access the file, "\\VM_Projects\CSRP Interface PDB\archives\Daily Sync\Stored Procedures\Infosys_ds_CalculateCreditableCoverage_sp.sql-arc", because you do not have the appropriate privileges. Please do the needful!"

"This an urgent promotion to handle S2,IM449603. (Atatched)
Windows promo can be done immediately after SQL promo. Please do the needful."

matthew's picture

Gotten used to it.

Yep. It hasn't subsided... I've just gotten used to it!

Matthew P. Barnson

I rather like it...

Esp. when it comes from somebody who clearly sees him- or herself as in a position superior to mine-- particularly because it's so vague. It gives me the freedom select the particulars of the necessary corrective action...

"Oh, well, you told me the file system was at 98% and requested that I do the needful. Therefore, I deleted your files. Now the file system is back down to 70% utilization. Thank you for bringing this issue to my attention. If I can be of further assistance, please revert back."

[...] and a couple of other colonies. Search for it in Google, with quotes, and the first few results are humorous Western perspectives of the phrase, but then you have another 260,000 results of people actually posting that phrase on the internet. [...]