Etymology Usage

Is “necessarily” necessary?

Q: I keep hearing the unnecessary use of the word “necessarily,” as in “It’s not necessarily true.” Am I linguistically blind or does “necessarily” add something to “It’s not true”? I’m a foreigner and English isn’t my first or even second language.

A: English speakers have found the adverb “necessarily” to be a handy word since it entered the language around the year 1400.

It’s been used to mean unavoidably, compulsorily, indispensably, predictably, intrinsically, inevitably, and so on.

But the negative version you’re asking about—“not necessarily”—isn’t quite the opposite of any of those senses.

The Oxford English Dictionary says this negative construction is “used as a non-committal response to a question or suggestion.”

This usage, the OED says, indicates that “what has been said or suggested is not true in all respects or without qualifications.”

So when English speakers say something is not necessarily true, they mean it’s not entirely true. That’s not the same as saying flatly that it’s not true.

The OED’s earliest published reference for this usage is from Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. In chapter 20, Lucetta asks Elizabeth-Jane to be her companion.

“I am no accomplished person,” Elizabeth-Jane says. “And a companion to you must be that.”

“O, not necessarily,” Lucetta responds.

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