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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Doing the needful

A Wordlady reader has inquired whether the phrase "do the needful" is of Indian English origin, saying this:
I only started hearing/reading "do the needful" when IT off-shoring started happening on a big scale and I began interacting with folks based in or originally from India.
The corpus evidence suggests that this is indeed a very common phrase in Indian English, much more common than in other parts of the English-speaking world, and it seems to have achieved the status of a catchphrase, judging from this statement:
 The many dialects of Indian English are as varied as the country itself...there are other relatives of mine who are verbose and unfailingly flowery in their emails, generally ending with “Kindly do the needful”,
The other South Asian countries -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka -- are also fond of this phrase, as are, to a somewhat lesser extent, the English-speaking countries of West Africa.
In this article, it is described as "the granddaddy of all Indianisms"

Do the needful

The granddaddy of all Indianisms, a clunky phrase mostly used only by bureaucrats and people forced to plead with the bureaucracy. And yet so apt when you don’t want to type out, “Please send me the five forms I need to file my taxes” or “Please fix the road in front of my house that I have written three letters about already”. “Do the needful” covers a multitude of requirements, and avoids repetition. Should it be revived, old fashioned though it is?
 
But it is neither unique to, nor originally from, the Indian subcontinent. There is plenty of British English evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary:
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.
1831   Sir Walter Scott Jrnl. 24 Apr. (1946) 164   Young Clarkson had already done the needful—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—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’.
1992   J. Torrington Swing Hammer Swing! xiii. 118,   I went over to the drinks cabinet to do the needful.
and likewise in online corpora, although it is certainly not as frequent as in South Asian English.

Furthermore, it is fairly absent from North American sources historically, so this might lead North Americans to think it is an invention of Indian English. What is in fact happening is a not infrequent phenomenon in post-colonial Englishes:  Indian English has taken a phrase that existed in British English and run with it, so to speak. It will be interesting to see if this brings about a revival of the phrase in other varieties of English.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.