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.

6 Answers 6


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).

  • 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. Jul 20, 2014 at 11:58
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    @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]". Jul 20, 2014 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. Jul 20, 2014 at 12:47
  • where does this phrase come from?
    – Incerteza
    Aug 13, 2014 at 18:24
  • From Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, “Hey, Kent?” Whitey said, and Kent smiled at him. “I mean, not for nothing, right, but who really gives a f%ck?”. This works real well with the "softening the blow" definition.
    – dgo
    Jul 13, 2016 at 17:04

"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.

  • That's only the first of the senses quoted, the literal one. Jul 20, 2014 at 11:54

I have always interpreted hearing this as "Naught for nothing," rather than "Not for nothing."

As mentioned above, I can tell you that is it not for nothing that I am typing this response. But the way that I hear people use this phrase is always followed by a "but" and then some opinion or advice.

So I heard it as "naught," and assumed that it meant "I am offering this opinion, and its value is nothing but you have paid nothing for it." Or, "here is nothing in exchange for nothing." You may also just as easily be saying "I know you didn't ask my opinion, but..." or "What I am about to say has no value, but..."

So, this post is "naught for nothing." You may get nothing from it, but you also didn't ask for it or pay anything for it... its nothing for nothing.

Most people who use it, though, likely just use it as a mix of verbal filler and a clumsy way to qualify their opinions to try to cut off any argument about what they are about to say.

  • Can you find any examples of this usage? It would make a lot of sense
    – Joe
    Aug 20, 2015 at 19:12

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. Jul 20, 2014 at 11:56

I've always thought of the colloquial usage of this phrase as simultaneously self-effacing and gently but firmly assertive. "What I'm about to say may not be definitive or comprehensive, but quite obviously it merits consideration."

I've heard this phrase mostly on the east coast, and it often but not always has the same flavor as "just saying...." You're leading someone to an obvious conclusion but softening it slightly.

Let me add, I like the "naught for nothing" theory. In a bunch of the northeast "not" and "naught" would sound nearly identical, so now I'm questioning what I was actually hearing all those years.


'Not for nothing' has a different meaning in classical literature than it does in present day usage. In classical literature it means 'for a good reason'. For example, in the Jack London quote it means that the cub was exposed to the harsh realities of surviving in the wild in order to teach him those survival skills and increase his odds of survival when he's grown up and on his own.

In the present day it is almost always followed by 'but' as in 'not for nothing, but your well-trained dog is peeing on your carpet.' It may be used to gently suggest a course of action in a manner that allows the comment's target to save face (i.e. a polite way to say 'I don't think your plan will work. We should try this instead.'). More often it is used to point out an irony for the purpose of poking fun at or ridiculing the target, as in my example above.

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    Where are you from, Nicole? I (British and over seventy) recognise what you call the "classical literature" meaning of the phrase but I've never heard it used in the way you say is the present day meaning.
    – BoldBen
    Apr 4, 2021 at 5:24
  • My experience is like @BoldBen's. In the Google NGram for "not for nothing " in BrE, *that leads by a long way, but this is presumably in contexts like "it is/was not for nothing that [clause]". Next in prevalence for * are was, did, had, is, I, the, he, does, has. But is not in the top 10. The only conjunction in the top 10 is that. Using AmE instead, again that leads by a long way, was, did, had come next, and the only conjunction in the top 10 is that.
    – Rosie F
    Apr 4, 2021 at 6:30
  • I should have looked on your user profile before I posted that comment, Nicole. I see you are from Oregon. I assume that the "Not for nothing, but" usage is American, I can't say I've heard it on this side of the pond. I wonder whether it exists in other parts of the English-speaking world.
    – BoldBen
    Apr 4, 2021 at 11:38

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