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!


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    “…is not subjected to the humiliation of having his column fact-checked…”
    Here be truth. Good catch. I vaguely wondered about Safire’s reading of ‘go to’ but it sounded plausible enough that I didn’t check it. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

  2. Interesting that “go to” has the essentially opposite meaning “come,come”, though the latter seems to be a gentler form.
    A Dutch equivalent: “ga weg” (go away) is a similarly used exclamation; also expresses astonishment, as in “you’re kidding!”

  3. A lot of conservatives have a predeliction for prescriptive grammar and cute archaisms. Safire especially, but George Will and Bill Buckley dabble in it, and as I remember James Jackson Kirkpatrick did too. There may be others. (Buckley wrote a “book” about Latinisms in English, IIRC. Not a scholar, but he plays on on TV).

  4. What does the OED say about the usage of “go to” in the King James Bible? In the favorite passage of linguists, Genesis 11:7, God says

    Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.

    This (with similar usages throughout the KJV) seems to be merely hortative, bleached of any chiding tone. We would say “Let’s go!” in similar case. How did the mere hortative manage to exist alongside the deprecative?

  5. I’m always up for a nice round of beating Safire with sticks, but I’m not so sure about this case. 91b–93b in my edition–may be an expression of disapprobation or protest, but the examples are all cases analagous to “come, come”. That is, the speaker is protesting the listener’s veracity, whether chidingly or incredulously. That doesn’t seem to fit the situation of Macbeth. The doctor and the wmoan may be horrified and even shocked that Lady Macbeth is saying the things she is saying, but they are hardly disbelieving or shocked by the facts she is presenting. The rumors have been flying in the play for a long time. It’s a bit of a stretch to believe that the doctor’s response to Lady Macbeth’s revelations would be “come, come,” even given her tenuous mental state.
    93a (presumably your 91a), however, gives us a far more plausable explanation:
    To go about one’s work, to get to work. Chiefly in imp. as an exhortation = Come on! L. age. Obs.
    This is the usage Safire attributes to Shaks., and I have to say, I agree. The doctor, knowing both of them, but particularly the gentlewoman, will be in danger if they are found eavesdropping, attempts to send her off. The woman responds somewhat tartly that if she wasn’t meant to overhear it, then perhaps Lady Macbeth shouldn’t have said it.
    Of course, the interpretation depends on how one imagines an actor saying the lines. I suppose it is possible to imagine the doctor as just kindly enough to be expressing sympathy here, and perhaps the woman as well, but in my mind the parallel between “known” (heard) and “spoke” sets up the gentlewoman as giving the doctor a defensive, sharp reply with a heavy emphasis on “spoke” to shift the blame from the person how has heard to the person who has spoken.

  6. perhaps he should be subjected to endless loops of the “walk-off” scene in the film zoolander. i’m just saying.

  7. I think that if Safire said it, it’s wrong, and we shouldn’t let any pointy-headed Shakespeare scholars confuse the issue.

  8. 93a (presumably your 91a)
    Yes — I was consulting my beloved, beat-up first-edition OED, and I wonder which two definitions have been shoehorned in since it was published?
    At any rate, I’m afraid I must disagree with you. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the phrase is used in the 93a sense, that is not “the usage Safire attributes to Shaks” — he quite specifically says he thinks it means ‘beat it, get out of here,’ not ‘go about one’s work.’ And while I can imagine that the sentence is spoken to the Gentlewoman, I find it hard to construe it with the sense you want. Here are the relevant (non-Scottish) OED examples:
    1583 HOLLYBAND Campo di Fior 9 Go to now bring me a doublet.
    1611 BIBLE Gen. xi. 3 And they sayd one to another; Goe to, let vs make bricke.
    1645 USSHER Body Div. (1647) 56 Go to then, shew first how many ways sinne is to be considered.
    1690 W. WALKER Idiomat. Anglo-Lat. 208 Go to! let it be done.
    It seems to me clear that “go to” in this sense was accompanied by some indication of what was to be done, some reinforcing phrase. “Go to, you have known what you should not” sounds much more like a more general “Come, come! Dear me!” use. Be that as it may, it does not and has never meant what Safire thinks.

  9. Oh, my, just another instance of John Emerson (who is NOT a scholar but plays one online – are there “books” involved, too?) not mixing his politics and purely linguistic matter…

  10. Martin- “Get out!” is often used similarly in English. I seem to recall seeing apage! used this way in Plautus as well, but I can’t recall where.

  11. It was a JOKE, Tatyana! A JOKE!

  12. Louder, John.

  13. Darlings, I can’t imagine what use the OED is in tracing exclamations in The Scottish Play. “Go to” is, in fact, of course, a misheard version of the Scots “gyte”, which means “crazy”. (“Google” is Scots for “deceive”, but that is none of our business.)

  14. There are naturally other readings. One has Lady Macbeth entering with a tapir, a beast which when Shakespeare was writing was beginning to penetrate European consciousness and may, for all I know, have been a much-desired pet. The doctor is alarmed by this and cries “Koto, koto!”, the koto being a type of Japanese sword popular in the 16th century and possibly used in rhinoceros-sticking and other types of browser war at the time.

  15. I would very much like to see a performance of the play under your direction.

  16. LH, it has been done in the old country[ies] for years.

  17. Tell me more: I am still a thrall to James Thurber and his Macbeth Murder Mystery.

  18. “Get away” is common in UK English still as an expression of disbelief. Come to think of it, so is “fuck off!” in my neck of the woods at least. Clearly there is a deep connection.

  19. To be mainly irrelevant, I was wondering just the other day why the abbreviation for Missus had an ‘r’ in it, but now I have a new question: how come Mrs changed from being an abbreviation for Mistress with no connotations of being married to being one for Missus complete with connotations of being married? Is Missus some kind of contraction of Mistress? (I suppose I could look it up on Google…)
    To be less irrelevant, I agree with Stephen’s comment about “get away!” and “fuck off!” and would like to add that in the NE of England, we are sometimes known to say “had away!” to mean the same. I suspect had is something to do with hold, as in “had on, man!” (“hold on!” or “I say, wait for me!” in standard English), but it seems a bit odd to say “hold away!”, so maybe I’m wrong.

  20. No, your instinct is right. It’s a northern expression that’s also in Scots; the Dictionary of the Scots Language says:
    to haud awa’, (1) to keep away, keep out or off (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., m.Lth. 1956); in imper. = let alone, not to mention; hence phr. haud awa frae, with the exception of (ne.Sc. 1956); (2) to continue on one’s way, go away (Uls. 1880 Patterson Gl.; Sh., ne.Sc., em.Sc.(a), Slk. 1956)

  21. go to’s are also considered harmful

  22. dungbeattle says

    Go to: just an endless loop,when used in a judicious manner, it will spagetti one’s test of thought,when basically written .

  23. Returning to William S. [I think Language Hat’s instincts are right with this columnist], perhaps we should create a new word for an irritating pedant who persistently gets it wrong?
    Suggestions? Is there a word already?

  24. Since Safire only ever crops up here in his persona as maven-cum-tosser, I am moved to wonder why anyone reads him at all?
    It is important to debunk some kinds of rubbish (creationisme being the shiningest example), but this kind of rubbish is surely of no consequence whatever.
    If they replaced Safire with Trevor, _that_ I’d read, though but.

  25. this kind of rubbish is surely of no consequence whatever
    Oh, how I wish I could agree and leave Mr. Safire bobbing behind in the backwash as I sail on to better things, but I’m afraid a regular column in the Newspaper of Record is ipso facto of consequence, and far too many people take it as gospel and get reinforcement of their already distorted sense of language from it. So debunk I must.

  26. 1) You tell me: does “indictment” make any sense in that context?
    2) As I say there, “say them aloud (or imagine them said aloud) and the meaning is clear.” If you mean a, you’ll stress “often” and pause slightly after it; if you mean b, you’ll stress “eat” and pause slightly before “often.” If you’re writing the sentence, you’ll probably want to rewrite for clarity, which has nothing to do with “rules” — you can’t make a rule to solve every conceivable ambiguity.

  27. Just reread and enjoyed your attack on David Foster Wallace.
    Though I side very much with your attack on a pompous pedant’s lack of the accuracy he boasts of, two thoughts quickly:
    1/ When he writes ‘inditement’, does he mean ‘indictment’?
    2/ I read the two would-be-ambiguous sentences aloud, and I have to admit to finding the first one, yes, a little ambiguous.
    “People who eat this often get sick” surely means either of
    a/ People who eat this often, get sick – in other words, eat it enough and you are sure to get sick, as against
    b/ People who eat this, often get sick – meaning even eating it once frequently causes sickness?
    A poor example of ambiguity on his part, admittedly, since they are very close together and pretty much any food qualifies for ‘often’ enough in [a], but does this not just about get over the bar?

  28. How did the mere hortative manage to exist alongside the deprecative?
    To illustrate my last remark: Jehovah and the Tower; Noah and the Ark. What did they say just when everything seemed so dark? “You’ve got to accentuate the hortative, eliminate pejoratives, latch on to the deprecative, and don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.”

  29. Neat answer on (2), LH – I didn’t realise you were saying that saying them aloud to unpick the difference was enough!
    As for (1), I don’t know the word ‘inditement’, but I don’t understand what he writes in the snippet you quote – as you say, perhaps because he doesn’t either. I was unable to find it in the longer article. Is that one word he makes out of ‘inditement-emphasis’?
    Thanks for advising my student Judit the other week, by the way!

  30. perhaps we should create a new word for an irritating pedant who persistently gets it wrong? Suggestions? Is there a word already?
    Steven Pinker just uses Safire’s own term “language maven” as a pejorative.

  31. I’m afraid the phrase ‘go to’ always reminds me of ‘1066 and All That’:
    ‘She didn’t say where, but he got the message.’

  32. Which reminds me that the OED, amusingly, has the following under “go”:
    to go to Jericho, Bath, Hong Kong, Putney, etc.: used imperatively or optatively to imply that one desires to see no more of a person, or does not care what becomes of him. Similarly to go to Halifax
    Gee, you think there might be some additional information they’re withholding? Victorians…

  33. I did go to Putney, and must aver the OED’s on to something here…

  34. Go thou to Rome – at once the Paradise,
    The grave, the city, and the wilderness;

  35. I do beg your pardon — that line wasn’t in ‘1066 …’ at all; ’twas in Will Cuppy’s ‘The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.’

  36. LH, could that reading possibly be similar to the Russian “[would you]go to..3 letters”? Пошёл на… А не пошёл бы ты на…
    Sounds strangely familiar. And useful.

  37. another phrase says

    Another example of the same thing in modern usage is “come on.” “Come on” has many meanings:
    “Come on, let’s go” or “Come on over.” Usually pronounced “C’mon.” (almost always with a rising tonality, too) Only time it is fully pronounced is when it’s assumed the addressee will not comply.
    “Come on, you can’t really believe that?” A lot like “go to” and “come, come” (and many other similar phrases) in the discussion above. Sometimes fully pronounced as two separate words, occasionally “c’mon” but with a different tonality.
    “Was that a come on?” or “Did he come on to you?”
    A pass, or a flirtatious advance. Never pronounced “c’mon” when this meaning is intended.

  38. Once there was a clergyman who wrote to his bishop requesting funds to study in the Holy Land. He received the following by return mail:

    Dear Mr. Sturgeon:

    Go to Jericho.


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