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Working in India, I learned a phrase I’d like to spread to the rest of the world

KIM ROSEN/The Globe and Mail

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When I first worked in India in the early 1990s, in a multinational bank, I received a letter from the friend of a friend of a friend. It requested a job for his daughter and ended with the phrase: "Please do the needful."

I was struck. Since then, I've seen this phrase used umpteen times – and each time I realize afresh its simplicity, practicality, comprehensiveness and wide applicability.

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Therefore I feel it is my duty – nay, my privilege – to present it to the rest of the English-speaking world.

"Do the needful" means "do whatever the heck it takes to get this thing done." It is comprehensive. It implies leaving no stone unturned in trying to accomplish the goal; criminal activity not excluded. And it is most effective when written at the end of a letter – or, these days, an e-mail or instant message – because the recipient has no chance to protest.

The phrase is a throwback to India's Colonial days. I don't know that the British still use it, but it's definitely part of Indian-English today.

There are, of course, many other phrases that fall into this category. For example, the man who wrote to me could well also have written the following: "For bunking classes and spending all her time at the mess, my daughter was on the verge of being expelled from college. However, she was a topper and passed out last year. But now that her rich uncle has expired, I am out-of-station and her mother has shifted to Mumbai, she can no longer afford to watch films as a time-pass until we find her a boy. Therefore she needs this job at your bank."

But even in the midst of all that, "Please do the needful" would stand out.

This mother of all phrases is applicable in almost any situation.

When your home phone line is dead for the third time this month, you can phone (using your mobile) your friend in the state phone company and say, "Please do the needful."

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When you are desperately looking for nursery-school admission for your three-year old, you can approach your neighbour whose cousin runs a school and say, "Please do the needful."

If you need a driver's license but can't drive, you can contact that influential public servant you impressed at a cocktail party last month and say, "Please do the needful."

This phrase is not just useful in an Indian context, but internationally as well.

Want to have a nice weekend? Tell your husband to do the needful. Want to go to private college but have no private funds? Tell your parents to do the needful. Want your kid to get straight As? Just tell him to do the needful. Want to lose weight? Then you do the needful.

The nice thing is that you, as the user of the phrase, don't actually have to know what "the needful" is; leave that to the recipient. In some cases, where dubious means or shady people are incorporated, you might not want to know. Instead, you are magnanimously trusting in the recipient's intelligence and other resources, and giving him the latitude to solve the problem in whatever manner he thinks most effective.

This phrase may well have inspired Nike's slogan "Just Do It." But while Nike seems to be saying "do whatever you want without thinking too much about it," "Do the needful" is focused and deliberate: "Do what is necessary to get the job done."

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If only this phrase had become common knowledge much earlier, I think it could have been useful to Vito, Sonny and Michael Corleone and the rest of their verbally-challenged gang. It might also prevented some authors from writing tiresomely long novels.

And imagine how it could have shortened innumerable Do-It-Yourself manuals, not to mention surgical procedure door-stoppers.

The power of this phrase is definitely unique.

Despite having grown up in Western Canada and worked in Eastern Canada, I don't know of a Canadian equivalent.

Granted, most letters that came across my desk then were rather boring – and, as I continued to ignore them, increasingly terse and unnecessarily demanding.

But if there was an interesting Canadianism floating around, for sure I'd have heard about it because I'm no hoser. However, the national dish – Timbits (taken with a glass of homo milk) – goes a long way toward making up for this deficiency, eh?

The French gave us "C'est la vie," but that's rather stating the obvious.

The Italians gave us "That's amore," but then they would.

The Germans gave us "blitzkrieg," but it's hardly something you can use in daily conversation.

The Spanish (or was it the Austrians?) gave us "Hasta la vista, baby." While that one assuredly ranks high in the coolness index, it lacks the directive of "Do the needful" to get things done.

In today's uncertain economic and political climate, this phrase is by far the most useful. And with the inclusion of "please," it's also the most polite.

So, now that you too realize the beauty and value of this small but singular phrase, I hope you will join me in spreading it throughout the English-speaking world.

I don't want to insult your intelligence by saying it, but you know what you have to do.

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty lives in New Delhi.

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