17 January 2016

"Needs must when the devil drives"

I heard that phrase during the broadcast of the most recent "Sherlock" episode and had to look it up.  I found my answer at the always-intersting World Wide Words.
The expression does exist, and as it happens is one of the older proverbs in the language, somewhat predating the USA. Shakespeare uses it in All’s Well that Ends Well: “My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives”. However, it is actually older — the earliest I can find is in John Lydgate’s Assembly of Gods, written about 1420: “He must nedys go that the deuell dryves”.

The form you quote is the usual modern one, but it isn’t so easy to understand, as it is abbreviated and includes needs must, which is a semi-archaic fixed phrase — now effectively an idiom — meaning “necessity compels”. The Shakespearean wording makes the meaning clearer: if the devil drives you, you have no choice but to go, or in other words, sometimes events compel you to do something you would much rather not.


  1. :-) needs must post comment, even if nothing to say. :-)


  2. I was taken aback by the casual mention of "most recent Sherlock episode". I knew there was a one-off special episode set in the Victorian period and broadcast in Britain on January 1 (though not broadcast here in Australia as far as I know), but the phrase "most recent episode" implies a new episode in the ongoing series, not a one-off special.

    I looked it up on Wikipedia and saw that Season Four is not expected to be broadcast until 2017, with filming not due to start until April of this year. OK, relax. So you must have meant the New Year special after all.

    1. I was referring to the special (which I thought less enjoyable than most of its regular-season predecessors).

  3. Interesting. Never knew the second half of the quote, but heard the first in day to day useage from my parents. (And you wouldn't use it as the first commenter did. Always used as a stand alone phrase, usually when the situation isn't ideal but must be as it is: "Are you washing that blanket by hand?" "Yes the washer won't fit it in, so needs must"

  4. ...Cross your heart and
    Hope to prosper
    All your sin will be forgiven
    Needs they muster
    Devil drives the biggest car
    You've never driven...

    Echo and The Bunnymen
    Freaks Dwell, Reverberation 1980


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