Largo al Factotum… Why People Think I Know Opera

Those of you who know me from Adaptec/Roxio days probably remember the tag line appended to my every email and newsletter: “Largo al Factotum del CD-R.”

It’s a pun on a line from Figaro’s song in the opera in “The Barber of Seville.” The original phrase is “Largo al factotum della citta'” (“Make way for the do-everything of the city”); I simply replaced citta‘ (city) with CD-R (CD recording), and the line still scans reasonably well.

I thought it up one day (in 1996, according to Google) when I was feeling particularly harried with requests from every direction. I hardly knew the opera, and only a few lines of the song, but I looked up the rest of the lyrics and found that they were indeed appropriate: “Everyone wants me, everyone asks me… Figaro there, Figaro here… One at a time, for pity’s sake!” So a joke was born.

It had a number of interesting unintended consequences. I made some new friends under false pretenses: they got the impression that I knew a great deal more about opera than I actually did. (But they eventually forgave me when they learned the truth, and are still friends. And now I have opera singer friends to help mend my deficiencies.)

Only opera fans and Italians got the joke at a glance. Many people, misled by the word factotum, dragged out their high school Latin (“factotum” is indeed Latin, but it’s used in contemporary English as well as Italian). Others thought of “largo” as it is used in music (“slow” or “wide”), and came up with some very unflattering translations! I eventually put up a Web page with a full translation of the song, and referred people to that when they asked what the line meant. Mike Richter kindly provided the appropriate snippet of (out of copyright) music; the page is long since gone from the Adaptec site, but you can see it, and hear the music, on the Wayback Machine.

(Or you can go here.)

Towards the end of my tenure at Roxio, one customer wrote to me, irate that I dared to put non-English words into my email. Oy, vay – how do you deal with people like that? But, to balance the scales, an Italian sent me the following story:

You have to be careful using the word ‘factotum’ with English-speakers. I told an American colleague that I was the factotum in our office. He looked at me, very startled, and said “Fuck what?”

fucktotum

(No, I did not do this graffito!)

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