Every time I decide to cut William Safire some slack or just let him be, he does something so egregious I have to drag him once again before the bar of justice. His latest “On Language” column is called “Go To!” and is mostly an unobjectionable discussion of the spread of two terms that originated in sports jargon: go-to (as in “go-to guy”) and walk-off (as in “walk-off home run”); he wonders if the latter will undergo the same kind of metaphoric extension as the former. But, being Safire, he’s unable to broach the subject he wants to talk about without a cutesy historical lead-in, and since he knows essentially nothing about the history of language and apparently is not subjected to the humiliation of having his column fact-checked, he regularly perpetrates howlers in his tossed-off intros. This time he begins:
The sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, obsessively trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood, is observed by a Doctor of Physic and a horrified Waiting-Gentle-Woman. As Shakespeare’s most famous villainess cries, ”Out, damned spot!” the doctor whispers a warning to his fellow witness: ”Go to, go to; you have known what you should not.”
The meaning of the imperative go to, four centuries ago, was ”beat it,” now ”geddoutahere” or, as those who cherish archaisms still say, ”get thee hence.” In our time, those two short words have fused into a compound adjective with a wholly different meaning, and that modifier is sweeping the language…
Did he even glance at the scene he’s quoting? The Doctor and the Gentlewoman, secretly observing Lady Macbeth, are overcome by horrified compassion and exchange murmured comments to each other after each of her outbursts. When she says “The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?—What, will these hands ne’er be clean?—No more o’ that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with this starting,” the Doctor says, clearly to Lady Macbeth though of course not for her ears, “Go to, go to; you have known what you should not,” and the Gentlewoman agrees: “She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that: heaven knows what she has known.” And regardless of the addressee, the phrase simply does not mean what Safire thinks it means, as a glance at the OED would have told him: definition 91b under go is:
go to Used in imp. to express disapprobation, remonstrance, protest, or derisive incredulity; —Come, come!
When Richardson’s Mrs. Jewkes says to Pamela “Go to, go to, naughty, mistrustful Mrs. Pamela; nay, Mrs. Williams […] I may as good call you,” she is not (forsooth) telling her to go away, she is chiding her for her supposed mistrust. (I should mention that at that time the abbreviation Mrs. was read “Mistress” and did not imply married status.)
I beg you, Times, exercise some quality control!