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Is the meaning of the phrase "Not for nothing" literal, or idiomatic, and if idiomatic, what does the idiom mean? If you have a reference more reliable than urban dictionary, please share it. Here are two quotes using the phrase in which its meaning seems literal:

Not for nothing had he been exposed to the pitiless struggles for life in the day of his cubhood, when his mother and he, alone and unaided, held their own and survived in the ferocious environment of the Wild.
-Jack London

It is not for nothing you are named Ransom.
-C.S. Lewis

However, this phrase comes up all the time in Aaron Sorkin's writing, especially the TV show The West Wing, and its usage there seems more idiomatic. For example:

Not for nothing, but, you know, we're gonna have to get into the thing at some point.

Josh Lyman: We elect these people. And not for nothing, but if we'd been the world's policeman in the thirties, you and I...
Toby Ziegler: We'd have had a lot more relatives.

In the previous two examples, the sentence structure was

"Not for nothing" <verb> <rest of sentence>

but in the last example, the structure is:

"Not for nothing", <but>, <full sentence>

I suspect that the phrase is being used idiomatically in the last example, but I am unsure of the meaning in this context.

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4 Answers 4

In its straightforward "literal" sense, not for nothing is equivalent to for a very good reason.

But lately in the US it's used idiomatically (often followed by but) defined by UrbanDictionary as...

used to soften the blow of something that would normally be offensive or come on too strong.

There's also this Wordpress post giving the meaning “What I’m about to say is important” - which "sorta" makes sense as a "literal" usage (I have a good reason for saying what I'm about to say), though I must admit I've never come across it. But it can be seen as a "bridge" between the literal sense and the otherwise impenetrable idiomatic usage above (I have to tell you this because it's important that you should know it, but I don't want to tell you, because you won't like hearing it).

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Though it doesn't seem very logical, I would actually say the meaning is almost the opposite of “I have a good reason for what I'm about to say”—to me, it says more “There's nothing particular that [in what you've just said/the present situation] that's making me say this, but…”, making it clear that this is a statement that comes truly from yourself, not spurred on by—or possibly even related to—anything in the context. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 11:58
    
@Janus: I dunno. I wasn't familiar with OP's usage before this question came up, but this entry on UsingEnglish seems to accurately describe most of the instances I looked at after googling not for nothing but. I wonder if your interpretation arises by conflation with the pragmatic "introduction to topic-switch" that I'd normally use in your context - "Apropos nothing, [some non-sequitur]". –  FumbleFingers Jul 20 at 12:43
    
I would use “apropos (of) nothing…” if it was an actual non-sequitur, but “not for nothing” implies that the speaker thinks the point about to be made is both relevant and important to the topic—it's just not directly spurred on by anything in the topic this far. It's kind of a curve-ball. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 12:47
    
where does this phrase come from? –  Alex Aug 13 at 18:24

"Not for nothing" means, literally, "for something," but should be interpreted as "there is a good reason that..." It is used to describe something fitting.

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That's only the first of the senses quoted, the literal one. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 11:54

In Dutch there is the saying "Niet voor niets", it means literally the same as the English version. Could it be the case that Dutch native tongues introduced the phrase by mistake?

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Almost the same phrasing exists in the Scandinavian languages, too, except there it's “not for something/anything” instead. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 20 at 11:56

"Not for nothing" is the motto of the Connolly family. We don't go through life for nothing, there is a reason behind it all - maybe we just don't know what it is. But we will find out, in the long run.

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