These word tasting notes are strictly need-to-know.

You’re probably familiar with that term, need-to-know. It showed up in the 1950s and has grown in use quite steadily ever since. It came out of the world of intelligence – by which I mean spying. Information of great value and great vulnerability couldn’t be shared with just anyone; in order to maintain proper security, avoid compromising lives, and keep the value of the information, only those who had a direct line-of-duty requirement involving the knowledge would get the knowledge.

It also came to be used in contexts of other restrictions. If, for example, information was costly to disseminate – perhaps it required hundreds of pages of reproduction back at a time when reproduction was expensive (or, as still happens, it required payment of rights at a confiscatory level) – it would be reserved for those who had a compelling case for knowing it.

Of course, once a concept or tool is available that allows control and domination, those who like to control and dominate will latch onto it. Need-to-know becomes need-to-no: the holders of knowledge need to say No to people who ask for it, even if there’s no risk to revealing and no important advantage to concealing. Or it becomes knead-to-know: you have to massage the holders of the information, rub them just the right way. It is they, after all, who determine what need is. And sometimes it is kneed-to-know: if you ask, you will get kneed in the groin in the process of finding out.

So you have a world of knowledge that is like navigating a library by flashlight, like going through a maze and drawing cards to determine each turn, like walking through a vault full of safe-deposit boxes with just one little key. This is the world where intelligence is don’t-tell-igence. If someone else needs you to know, you can, but you probably can’t because they probably don’t.

My world of intelligence is a little different. I believe intelligence is best served by knowing as much as possible. If I spy with my little eye something that is at all interesting, I must learn more. To me, opening a dictionary or encyclopedia or doing other research is not a chore, it’s Christmas morning. Knowledge is a gift, and may we all be gifted. If I am told I do not need to know, well, I can’t even – as the saying goes, there are not enough evens to can. It’s uncanny! I am not trying to be some gnostic; I simply seek the holy gnosis – which is knowing. Knowing, for instance, that the gn in gnostic and gnosis and the /k/ and /n/ in can and uncanny and know (the k used to be pronounced) are cognate (whereas the gn in cognate is not cognate with them!), and all those words and many more in many languages trace to the same origin. Knowing that need was first a noun referring to requirement or necessity, the compulsion of circumstance – which might, in many cases, just be a stronger version of desire. A need may be the compulsion of existing with a mind seeking knowledge and needing to be fed. Who determines what need is? When it’s my blog or my life, I do.

So these word tasting notes are strictly need-to-know because I strictly need to know.

I operate on a need-to-know basis. I need to know everything.

I’ve said that a few times. More than a few. Someone finally asked me to put it on a T-shirt. So I did. Coffee mugs too. You can buy one (and another one for a friend). They’re reasonably priced. Visit

One response to “need-to-know

  1. Knowledge is power. My need to be a private citizen and not share information — or to at least control the information I sure with others — will always be in conflict with someone’s need-to-know, particularly the government’s and not necessarily yours. I’ll always be suspicious about the government amassing more power; maybe I read “1984” at too early an age.

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