Lauren Sperber

just call me Jean Factotum

groatsworth of witte
title page of Robert Greene’s Groatsworth of Witte

A colleague of mine recently alerted me to the wonderous Latin phrase Johannes factotum, meaning a Jack of all trades with the bonus connotation of “would-be universal genius” that the phrase “Jack of all trades” most certainly lacks. The OED Online entry for factotum elaborates:

a. In L. phrases: Dominus factotum, used for ‘one who controls everything,’ a ruler with uncontrolled power; Johannes factotum, a Jack of all trades, a would-be universal genius. Also fig.
b. One who meddles with everything, a busybody.
c. In mod. sense: A man of all-work; also, a servant who has the entire management of his master’s affairs.

Gotta love how the OED‘s idea of a “modern” sense of a word can include the concept of servant and master.

Anyway, the first instance of Johannes factotum in the English (according to the OED anyway) is in Robert Greene‘s (doubtfully attributed) pamphlet, Groatsworth of Wit, in which he calls Shakespeare “an absolute Johannes fac totum, [who] is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.” Shake-scene. Heh.

By the way, since I didn’t know what the heck groatsworth meant, the OED defines it as “As much as is bought or sold for a groat”—noting off-handedly that the figurative use of such would be “a very small amount.” Thanks, OED. Until tomorrow.