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Origin of - Needs must

Posted by Camel on February 26, 2002

In Reply to: Parsing posted by The Fallen on February 26, 2002

: : I have always found this a little confusing, especially when it's shortened just to 'needs must' because it makes it seem like 'needs' is a noun. I must go the verb below and 'needs' an unusual adverb or is 'must needs go' the verb?

: : "He must needs go that the Devil drives." Shakespeare: All's Well That-Ends Well

: : Any elucidation much appreciated.

: Hmmm. I didn't know the phrase was of Shakespearean origin - or did Bill just use a phrase that was already current?

: Today's more usual version is "needs must when the Devil drives"... I say "more usual", but it's hardly in common usage. Thanks is clearly owed to Shakespeare, because parsing the modern version of the phrase correctly would have been next to impossible.

: My bet is that Camel's first instincts are right - "needs" is some archaic form of adverb, meaning "with necessity". This does seem fractionally tautologous in the line from "All's Well That Ends Well", but maybe the repetition is done for emphasis.

: I'm probably entirely wrong on all this, but what the Heck?

I think the phrase may be a proverb. I found it in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable compiled by E. Cobham Brewer. It exists in in other languages too. The French, which you'll appreciate more than I, "Il faut marcher quand le diable est aux trousses;" and also in Italian "Bisogna andare, quando il diavolo è vella coda.", which, as a self-confessed linguist, I dare say you'd be able to appreciate without too much effort.

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