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Factotum

Pronounced /fækˈtəʊtəm/Help with pronunciation

When the word first appeared, it was always paired with another to make what looked like a personal name. Dominus Factotum was a ruler with absolute powers, Magister Factotum was a master of all, while a Johannes Factotum was a would-be universal genius who could turn his hand to anything. His modern equivalent is Jack-of-all-trades, which probably derives from it.

This is an early appearance of Johannes Factotum:

For there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Robert Greene, A Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance, 1592. Spelling modernised. The object of his ire was William Shakespeare.

Greene wrote factotum as two words, as was common at the time, since he would have known very well that it derives from two Latin words, fac!, the imperative of facere, to do, plus totum, the whole thing. The experts aren’t sure where it was coined, since similar expressions turn up in French and German in the middle to late sixteenth century at about the same time as they appear in English.

Since then, the status of factotum has declined. It now refers to an employee or servant of lowly status who is expected to turn his hand to any job that comes up.

Uncle Fred continued his job as roundsman and general factotum when Mr Wigley replaced the horse-drawn vans with new electric delivery vehicles around 1952.

Derby Evening Telegraph, 25 May 2009.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 11 Jul. 2009

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Last modified: 11 July 2009.