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 Lexical Leavings

by Tom Gally



Dictionaries define the idiom "make a virtue of necessity" in various ways. Some emphasize the attitude of the subject:
make a virtue of necessity to accept with an agreeable or positive attitude that which must be accepted anyway (Webster's New World)

make a virtue of necessity to do sth with good grace, when you are obliged to do it anyway (Encarta World English)

make a virtue of necessity to acquiesce in doing something unpleasant with a show of grace because one must do it in any case (Collins English)
Others instead focus on pretense:
make a virtue of necessity to pretend that you are doing something because you have chosen to do it and because it will bring you benefits, when in fact it is something that you must do (Macmillan English Dictionary)

make a virtue of necessity/troubles etc. to pretend that you are doing something because you want to do it, when actually it is something you must do (Longman Advanced American)

make a virtue of necessity
To pretend that one is freely and happily doing something one has been forced to do: "Once the mayor was forced by the voters to cut his budget, he made a virtue of necessity and loudly denounced government spending." (The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy)
Still others define it differently, making no mention of the subject's attitude or of pretense:
make a virtue of necessity to make the best of a difficult or unsatisfactory situation (Random House Webster's)

make a virtue of necessity to manage to gain an advantage from sth that you have to do and cannot avoid (Oxford Advanced Learner's)
How has the expression actually been used?

In Chaucer, it seems to have had the "with an agreeable or positive attitude" meaning:
Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it weel, that we may nat eschue;
And namely, that to us alle is due.
("The Knight's Tale")
Dickens had the "pretend" meaning:
I had hoped to have no other companion than Agnes. But Mrs. Heep had asked permission to bring herself and her knitting near the fire, in that room; on pretence of its having an aspect more favourable for her rheumatics, as the wind then was, than the drawing-room or dining-parlour. Though I could almost have consigned her to the mercies of the wind on the topmost pinnacle of the Cathedral, without remorse, I made a virtue of necessity, and gave her a friendly salutation. (David Copperfield)
Shakespeare used it to mean "make the best of a bad situation":
SECOND OUTLAW:
Indeed, because you are a banish'd man,
Therefore, above the rest, we parley to you.
Are you content to be our general?
To make a virtue of necessity
And live as we do in this wilderness?
(The Two Gentlemen of Verona)
Most examples in recent magazines and newspapers also seem to have the "make the best of a bad situation" meaning, with no mention of a positive attitude or of pretense:
A strange, brooding movie, "Nilofar in the Rain" sucks the viewer into a domestic drama of power plays, humiliation and revenge among exiled Afghanis. Filmed on a small budget, tyro writer-director Homayoun Karimpour knows how to make a virtue of necessity: Pic's underlit interiors, with their queasy color balance, create a fetid atmosphere in keeping with the quasi-incestuous family machinations as a husband and father battle for the affections of the titular young woman. (Variety, June 9, 2003)

Cipsco began learning about competition as a result of a poor investment decision. Anticipating growth in demand in its market, Cipsco added a 600-megawatt coal-fired facility in 1982. But the demand never materialized. Making a virtue of necessity, Cipsco's managers began selling the surplus power to other utilities. Thus began Cipsco's successful effort to become a profitable wholesaler of power to other utilities. (Forbes, January 2, 1995)
   
Co-producers Mike Piccirillo and Gary Goetzman have done an effective job of using this Jackson's talent and disguising her lack of it. They've surrounded her with lots of thwomping backup and high-voltage synthesizer lines, overdubbed and covered up.... They've even demonstrated an all-time example of making a virtue of necessity, turning LaToya's natural singing style, mostly coos, squeals and frail noises, to advantage on the pillowy Love Talk. (People Weekly, April 14, 1986)

It's one of life's immutable laws that productions chosen to open new theatres take second place to their surroundings in the inaugural reviews: full marks, then, to Hampstead Theatre for making a virtue of necessity and commissioning a work about the building itself. (The Independent, February 18, 2003)

With tourism to Israel having virtually disappeared since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising two years ago, two American immigrants living in a settlement have come up with the idea of making a virtue of necessity by appealing to tourists seeking to spice up their lives with a bit of action. "They'll get full value for their money," said Yehezkel Klein, head of tourism for the Gush Etzion bloc of settlements south of Jerusalem where the program is to be carried out. "From the moment they cross the 'green line' [separating Israel proper from the West Bank] and find themselves in hostile territory they will feel in real danger of their lives. They'll sweat from fear. We'll bring them as close as possible to the friction points with the Palestinians," he said. (The Washington Times, March 8, 2003)
Though English-English dictionaries miss the multiple meanings of this idiom, some English-Japanese dictionaries do give several senses. For example:
make a virtue (out) of necessity
(1) やむをえずやったことを自発的にやったような振りをする, 当然やるべきことをしたのに手柄[自慢]顔をする.
(2) やむをえないことを潔く行なう; 避けがたい事態を有効に活用する. (『研究社 新英和中辞典』)
(February 20, 2005)