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I am trying to find alternative ways to refer to a very necessary thing or thing that someone must have. Can I use the word needful for this purpose? A person said that needful means the thing needs something but not that somebody needs it.

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'needful' is only recognized the way you use it in Indian English. It won't be understood in British, American, etc varieties of English. –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 20:34
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What is it that you aren't sure about after checking a dictionary for needful? –  aedia λ Jan 23 '12 at 20:35
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Just to clarify, needful as an adjective meaning "being in need" is uncontroversial in all dialects of English. However, needful as a noun meaning "something needed", while it does appear in all kinds of dictionaries, is not in common use outside of India. It is a very common usage in Indian English, however, and phrases like "please do the needful" are (in my experience) distinctive of speakers of Indian English. –  nohat Jan 23 '12 at 22:09
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@Robusto: what nohat said. That is, that's what I meant to say, or implied by the 'duplicate' link. Anyway, it very well could be that the OP is not interested in or aware of the IndE expression. But then the question doesn't give enough details or examples to tell. –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 22:23

2 Answers 2

I will only offer this data point: In 1991, best-selling author Stephen King published a novel (later made into a movie), called Needful Things. From the Wikipedia entry:

A new shop named "Needful Things" opens in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, sparking the curiosity of its citizens. The proprietor, Leland Gaunt, is a charming elderly gentleman who always seems to have an item in stock that is perfectly suited to any customer who comes through his door. ... It is revealed that Gaunt has traveled the world for centuries, selling useless junk that appears to be whatever the customers desire most.

It is obvious that the meaning of needful in this title is not "things that are needy" but "things that people think they really need" (i.e., that they find necessary and feel they simply have to possess).

Now, I will agree in advance that this usage is a bit formal and obscure, with an air of the rural or rustic about it, and that it is not in common usage. Nevertheless, the fact that a best-selling author can use the word in the title of a popular novel suggests that the word is not so obscure that people will not understand it.

There are plenty of little-used words that native speakers understand without using themselves. This brings up the question of what constitutes usage. If everyone understands a word, that seems to me to be evidence that the word is common even if it is rarely spoken. How often do we use words like "umbrage"? Rarely, if ever. Yet when they come up we know exactly what they mean. That feels to me like some form of currency.

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Merriam-Webster lists two meanings for the adjective needful: being in need and necessary, requisite. It also lists two meanings for the noun needful: something needed or requisite and money.

The adjective meaning necessary is also listed in Macmillan (formal), OALD (old use) and Longman (old use). It is not listed at all in CALD, so it is not a commonly used word today.

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