Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Not For Nothing

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 30, 2013

As soon as the idiom right as rain was published to this blog, Brian Michael Stempien wondered what the back story on not for nothing might be.   Setting off to research this idiom, the many twists and turns along the way made this an intriguing idiom to track.  You can lay the blame for double negatives on Latin, where positive assertions are made by way of double negatives. For example, non nulli translates into not nobody but it means everyone.  No wonder this idiom gives so many people trouble!

The idiom not for nothing actually means what’s about to be said or done is not to be said or done in vain; what’s about to be said or done has a cause, a purpose, a reason, or a use. What’s more, the same expression is found in other languages such as French where you can hear people say, “C’est pas pour rien.”

In Time magazine, in the Science and Technology section, the article, “Gagarin’s Golden Anniversary: The High Price Paid By The First Man In Space” by Jeffrey Kluger was published on April 12, 2011. The article, of course, had to do with the Russian cosmonauts and the American astronauts. In this article, the journalist used the idiom, not once, but twice!

It’s not for nothing that Russia, the U.S. space community and most former Soviet republics celebrate every April 12 as Yuri’s Night, with speeches, parties and commemorative events. It’s not for nothing, too, that this year the list of countries joining the celebration has expanded to 71 — including Belgium, Australia, Canada, Chile, China, Greece, India, the Maldives, Malaysia and even Iran — or that the inevitable website complete with the inevitable online gift shop has been launched.

When the Reading Eagle of Berks County (PA) published the July 17, 1952 edition of the newspaper where it was reported that Democrats felt certain President Truman could be swayed to change his mind about stepping aside to allow another to run for the office of President. It was said that Mrs. Truman had to motives for returning to Washington: The first was because she missed her husband when he was away from her, and the second was to be on hand if the call should come asking him to run for President again. The article read in part:

As is well known, Mrs. Truman has been irrevocably opposed to another four years in what she consider a cruel kind of imprisonment. And not for nothing does the President refer to her as “the boss.”

Russian poet, musician and novelist, Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin (18 October 1875 – 1 March 1936) used the expression in one of his poems, “Alexandrian Songs for Nikolair Feofilaktov, II Love, #6” published in 1906.

Not for nothing did we read the theologians
and studied the rhetoricians not in vain,
for every word we have a definition
and can interpret all things seven different ways.

And slipping back 2 more years to November 5, 1904 to a story in the New York Times entitled, “The Mikado’s Birthday” the expression makes an appearance.  Reporting on Japanese strategists in Tokyo who hoped to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in a very unique way, some history was rehashed and the following can be found:

But even a year ago, we repeat, when it became clear that Japan was prepared to fight the huge Muscovite Empire, as she had already successfully tackled the huge Chinese Empire, in vindication of what she believed to be her right to national expansion, which seemed to her equivalent to her right of national existence, there were not wanting skeptics to maintain that the clockwork precision and the dauntless valor which had marker her war against China went, if not for nothing, yet not for very much in the face of the fact that she had never encountered the troops of a “European” Power.

When Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer, Robert Louis Stevenson (November 13 1850 – December 3 1894) wrote and published “Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers” in 1881, he included this passage in Part 1.

Lastly no woman should marry a teetotaller, or a man who does not smoke. It is not for nothing that this “ignoble tobagie” as Michelet calls it, spreads all over the world.

It’s an expression that’s been used for centuries, and appears in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant Of Venice” that was published in 1596. The passage appears in Act II, Scene V.

LAUNCELOT
I beseech you, sir, go: my young master doth expect
your reproach.

SHYLOCK
So do I his.

LAUNCELOT
An they have conspired together, I will not say you
shall see a masque; but if you do, then it was not
for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on
Black-Monday last at six o’clock i’ the morning,
falling out that year on Ash-Wednesday was four
year, in the afternoon.

But as much as the word nothing came into the English lexicon in the 12th century, the expression not for nothing reaches back much more farther back. In fact, when newly baptized Christians were enslaved or massacred by Roman soldier, Saint Patrick (yes, the patron saint of Ireland) who lived from 385 to sometime between 462 and 493, wrote a “Letter To The Soldiers Of Coroticus” in the year 450. In this letter was written:

I grieve for you, how I mourn for you, who are so very dear to me, but again I can rejoice within my heart, not for nothing “have I labored,” neither has my exile been “in vain.”

Finally, the first published point was found with comic writer at the time of the Roman Republic, Titus Maccius Plautus (254 BC – 184 BC).  His first play was produced in 205 BC and continued throughout his lifetime and beyond. In Act IV, Scene III of “Aulularia.”

It was not for nothing that the raven was just now croaking on my left hand.

The expression was used freely in this comedy and the audience knew what it meant. Idiomation is therefore led to believe that not for nothing was a common expression at the time, and its existence lies somewhere in the years before the play was written.  At the very least, it was a known expression around 300 BC, and possibly earlier than that.

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