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Needs Must as the Devil Drives: Origin and Meaning

When you don’t want to do something but you have to: Accepting that something needs to be done even though you may view it as unpleasant or an undesirable action.
needs-must-as-the-devil-drives ‘Needs must as the devil drives’ is an incredibly old phrase. It comes from the idea that that, if the devil is driving you, you have no options. The earliest text, still extant now, where it can be found is the ‘Assembly of the god’ by John Lydgate, written around 1420.

“He must nedys go that the deuell dryves”

It was used more than once by William Shakespeare. In ‘All’s Well that Ends Well’ he writes:

“My poor body, madam, requires it: I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives”

This makes the meaning quite clear. If you are being driven by the devil you have no choice in the matter. Even though it is unpleasant you cannot do anything about it.

In modern usage people usually shorten the phrase to a simple ‘needs must’. It has now become a simple idiom meaning ‘necessity compels’.

A great example of its modern usage is from the great British sitcom Blackadder II in the episode ‘Money’ in 1985 (Blackadder is a wealth of creative uses of the English language and comedic twisting of literature, idioms and phrases).

“Needs must when the devil vomits into your kettle.”
Of course I’d rather go to the beach than sit here studying for my exams, but needs must I suppose.

We’re going to have to get an enormous loan to pay for your mother’s surgery. I hate to go into debt, but needs must when the devil drives.

“I think we had better have a cab. An extravagance, of course, but needs must where the devil drives, eh?”—My Family and Other Animals by G, Durrell
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