Q: What is the grammar of “needs must,” as in “needs must when the devil drives”? I’ve seen online discussions of the etymology, but not the grammar.
A: The word “needs” here is a very old adverb meaning “of necessity,” “necessarily,” or “unavoidably.”
It’s considered obsolete now except in the idiomatic expression “needs must” (or “must needs”), where “needs” is an intensifier emphasizing the must-ness of the verb “must.”
The two-word idiom, meaning “it’s necessary” or “it’s unavoidable,” is probably a shortening of the proverb “needs must when the devil drives,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, “needs must” appeared in writing a century before the proverb, according to citations in the dictionary, though apparently not yet as a fixed expression.
The proverb itself, the OED says, means “he must whom fate compels.” In other words, we must do what fate demands of us.
So how did “needs” become an adverb? In early Old English, nouns could be turned into adverbs by adding the suffix “-s” or “-es,” so ned (the Anglo-Saxon version of the noun “need”) became the adverb nedes.
In fact, some of those old “-s” adverbs have survived into modern English. For example, “nights” and “days” are adverbs in “She works nights [at night] and sleeps days [in the daytime].” In Old English, the noun/adverb pairs were nihte/nihtes and dæge/dæges.
The first OED example for the adverb “needs” is from an early Old English manuscript in the Parker Library at the University of Cambridge. The adverb means “of necessity” in the citation:
“Se ðe hine þonne nedes ofsloge, oððe unwillum oððe ungewealdes” (“Yet he who kills him of necessity or unintentionally or unwillingly”).
The dictionary has sections on “needs” used as an intensifier within clauses and with modal auxiliaries, or helping verbs, like “will,” “would,” “must,” and “mote” (an archaic verb that shared some of the senses of “must”).
The OED has several examples for “needs must” from the early 1300s. The earliest may have been from a lullaby in The Kildare Lyrics, written in an Irish dialect of Middle English. Here’s an expanded version of the citation, though it’s still only two lines of a long lullaby:
“Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore? / Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore” (“Lollai, lollai, little child, why do you weep so sore? / You needs must weep; it was ordained in days of yore”).
In working on our translation, we came across a sad, beautiful reading of the lullaby by a medievalist at the University of Oxford who blogs as A Clerk of Oxford.
If you’re puzzled by “lollai,” it seems to be an onomatopoeic predecessor of the verb “lull” (circa 1386) and the noun “lullaby” (1588).
The OED says “lull” and “lullaby” are derived from sounds used to sing a child to sleep. The dictionary cites similar terms in Germanic languages as well as the Latin verb lallāre (from singing “la la” to a baby).
Shakespeare uses the noun “lullaby” as well as lulling sounds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600):
Sing in our sweete Lullaby,
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby,
Neuer harme, nor spell, nor charme,
Come our louely lady nigh.
So good night, with lullaby.
Getting back to your question, “needs” usually appears in front of “must,” but the OED has many examples with their positions reversed, including this early citation from Guy of Warwick, a medieval romance written in the early 1300s: “He most nedes opon men go.”
The earliest Oxford example for a version of the full proverb is from The Assembly of Gods, a 15th-century religious poem that the dictionary attributes to John Lydgate, though some scholars list the author as unknown: “He must nedys go that the deuell dryues.”
The dictionary notes a similar proverb, minus the devil, that showed up a century earlier: “needs must that needs shall.” This example, circa 1330, is from a Middle English version of the Seven Sages story cycle: “O nedes he sschal, þat nedes mot.”
The first OED example for “needs must” used as a fixed expression meaning “it’s necessary” or “it’s unavoidable” is from A True Historie of the Memorable Siege of Ostend, a 1604 book by Edward Grimeston:
“We beleeue them no more then needs must.” (Grimeston’s True Historie translates a French account of how the Spanish defeated an English-Dutch force in Flanders.)
And here’s an example from Balaustion’s Adventure (1871), Robert Browning’s imaginative rumination on Euripides’s tragedy Alcestis: “She shall go, if needs must : but ere she go, See if there is need!” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
The most recent OED example is from Little Triggers, a 1999 mystery by Martyn Waites: “ ‘I’m pleased you have adapted yourself to our work ethic so readily.’ Larkin shook his head. ‘Needs must.’ ”