Words the Internet broke: “Need” vs. “Want”

The English language is constantly evolving, but that doesn’t mean that we should be the sort of irresponsible parent that leaves its baby with its fingers in the plug socket and a nappy full of poo just so that it can experience “independence”. No, sometimes English needs a helping hand.

“Need” is a word that is massively misused, especially online. The vast majority of the time when people say “need” the appropriate word is actually “want”.

You do not need to buy a computer game, new iPhone, or special edition boxed set. You do not need to see the latest superhero movie on opening night and rarely are there “Ten things you need to know” about any topic (even if “number 10 will shock you”).

You might want any of these things. You might really really really want them, but you don’t need them.

Most dictionary definitions of need now define it as a “strong desire” but this definition has really already been polluted by our bad habit of saying “need” when we actually mean want. Yes, we already broke the word. Still, there are still some people who know the difference between a need and a want. Normally, I would be more likely to build a wicker man and sacrifice these people to an obscure pagan god than to quote them but… needs must. Yes, it’s the economists:

Needs would be defined as goods or services that are required. This would include the needs for food, clothing, shelter and health care. Wants are goods or services that are not necessary but that we desire or wish for.

So, if you can replace “I need” in a sentence with “I will suffer significant, even life-threatening, physical or psychological harm without” and not sound like a self-obsessed narcissistic idiot then… congratulations! You’ve got yourself a bonafide need. If not… then it’s bad news. Your “need” is just a want trying to falsely legitimize itself, even if that means making you sound like a self-obsessed narcissistic idiot.

There are times when need can be used for things that fall outside the economic definition of need, but in all of these cases there should be a qualifier in the statement. For example: “I need a faster engine to break the world speed record.” Our wants, therefore, can engender needs, but only insofar as the one serves the other. You do not, generally speaking, just “need” a bigger and faster car. You “need” one because you “want” to break the world speed record. Ergo, still not a real “need”.

Now, this might all sound like a load of old-man grumbling about the use of words but there is slightly more to it than that. If you take a good look at the things that you need vs. the things that you want, you will find that you need a lot less than you think. Don’t worry, this isn’t disappearing down some “all you need is love” rabbit hole (because love, for all its power, doesn’t actually prevent starvation or hypothermia) the point is that every time you misuse the word “need” you are reducing its power. Our social media feeds are an endless stream of things that we “need”, or are being told that we “need”, and that other people want us to know they “need”. It’s impossible to see the wood for the trees.

But there are things individuals really do need. There are things society, collectively, really needs. There are things that the world needs.

And we need to focus on those things a little more.

So, don’t start saying “want” instead of “need” because I’m asking you to. Do it because… you need to. We all do.


Definition from: www.mcwdn.org/ECONOMICS/NeedWant.html