Saturday, January 17, 2015


I was watching a selection of opera highlights the other night and hear an aria featuring Figaro from The Barber of Seville. The good thing about watching this stuff on television is that the subtitles are right there and you don't have to crane your neck to see them like you do with supertitles on a live stage, so you don't miss much. One of the translations was "I am the factotum of the city". I was thinking, hmm, factotum--that doesn't enlighten me much. So I noted it down and moved on.

A few days later, I was reading Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl and found some mention of a factotum there as well. I don't even remember what character was being referred to, but I knew it was about time to get down to it with the word.

I have heard it before, of course. But it's one of those Latin sounding words where I have the resentful feeling that it could have been said just as easily in plain English, so I always just gloss over it. But enough of that attitude! I've got a blog to write!

"Factotum" has always struck me as vaguely academic sounding--like adjunct professor. Maybe someone behind a lectern. You have a feeling that it has lasted there in the ivied halls the longest. But Figaro is a barber, not a don. So what are we really talking about here?


A factotum is one who does all kinds of things for another, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It is an English word starting somewhere around 1560, and comes from the Medieval Latin, which looks exactly the same and is a combination of fac, the imperative form of "do" (in other words, "do!" and totum, or all. It was used in combination with other words, dominum (or magister ) factotum, which meant the master of all things, or Johannes factotum, which translates rather easily into Jack-of-all-trades. It seems a little unclear as to the status of such people, as for some reason, people who can do a wide range of things for others often have a pretty lowly status. Our own terms gofer, personal assistant and handyman have some of this same ambiguous quality. On the one hand, we rely on them, on the other, we resent it. I shouldn't say we, as I would be much more likely to be in the factotum position than that of the one they work for, except for the fact that I really am fairly inept.

I didn't realize that Factotum was the title Charles Bukowski gave to his second novel. The description from Wikipedia has it as the story of Henry Chinaski, whom it terms Bukowski's unemployed, alcoholic alter ego. Rejected by the draft during World War II, he drifts from one menial job to another, trying to find something he can do which will allow him to write at the same time. Sounds interesting.

And if that weren't enough, I found another fascinating sounding book, a collection of essays by Marius Kociejowski called The Pebble Chance, because one example of the use of the word I came across is an essay title in that book called "A Factotum in the Book Trade" where he describes working for the London bookstore, Bartram Rota. Head on over to the Washington Post article by Michael Dirda on the book, where you can read a lot of fascinating things that Kociejowski came across in this position. I was already thinking that working as a bookseller as I did for many years was kind of a factotum position, but I must admit that nothing quite so incredible ever happened to me in that role as it did to Kociejowski.

Whether we think of a factotum as lowly or high, Figaro was clearly proud of the position. Don't believe me? Here--take a look. Oh yeah, and opera aficionados will already know that the aria is called "Largo al Factotum" or, 'Make way for the factotum', which I guess I should have known...


  1. Factotum has always stuck in my mind because, damn it, there should be an r in there somewhere.

  2. It is an odd word that is resonant of many things that it is not, and I have a feeling that I will not retain it very well.

  3. In my book Guns Of Brixton, Half-Pint Harry is Captain Cutlass' Factotum.

    I always saw Baldrick as Blackadder's Factotum.

  4. See, this is your British education kicking in, Paul. We are farther from the Latin than you are out here. But maybe these examples will help it stick for me.

  5. Oh, I only know the word from the Bukowski book, I think! We certainly didn't have Latin at my school. We barely had English!

  6. I should have guessed that you would have read the Bukowski. But I wonder if more people are called factotums over there than here, as it certainly isn't in my range of experience.

    As for Latin, it seems to be making a comeback for an odd reason. At least, both of my nephews know some, partly because they like to play ancient Roman battle games online. Although I imagine their interest and vocabulary is limited to things involving mayhem and slaughter.

  7. Thanks for the opera clip. What a cool set/costume design. Factotum is a word I can only get right on multiple choice questions.

  8. Yeah, that's kind of what I'm feeling Nancy. However, if I think of Figaro, Baldrick and Half-Pint Harry, I may just be able to get a hold of it.