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  • Paul Anthony Jones

Jack Nitigo

(n.) a proverbial name for someone who refuses to acknowledge what they have seen with their own eyes

Here’s a story. The Oxford English Dictionary includes an entry for the expression Jack Nitigo, defined as “(a name for) a man who will not acknowledge what he has seen.”

The OED has just one record of this term ever being used, in The Apology of John Bale—a vituperative attack on clerical celibacy, written by the controversial English clergyman John Bale, sometime around 1550. Given that dearth of evidence, the term is understandably labelled obsolete and rare by the OED, and has sat relatively untouched in the murkiest corner of the dictionary since this entry was written in 1900.

Then along comes the Haggard Hawks and blunderingly hauls this thing out into the sunlight, and shares it with 70,000 people on Twitter.

I think we might owe John Bale another apology, quite frankly.

So where does this expression come from? Well, that’s where we run into trouble, because this one is a real mystery. And like all the best mysteries, there are quite a few clues to go on.

The OED, for its part, comes up with nought. While it points out that Jack has been used as a general name for a man or a male character for centuries, the origin of the apparent ‘surname’ here, Nitigo, is a complete mystery. “A second element of unknown origin,” as it rather bluntly puts it.

Nitigo itself is actually a (Spanish) surname—so maybe Bale plucked that name at random and used it here? That seems unlikely.

Another clue is offered by Bale himself. “He playeth the part of Iack Nitigo,” was the original quote in his Apology, “as ye saying is, he seith but he wyll not se, or els that he seyeth a smal moate & letteth the great beame passe by.”

“As the saying goes,” he reveals. Does he mean that Jack Nitigo was a proverbial saying back in Tudor England? Or that “he sees but will not see” was the saying in question? It’s a nice clue—but again we reach a brick wall, as neither seems to have been recorded anywhere else.

Perhaps this is a transcription error? Perhaps the name was actually meant to be Mitigo, the Latin word for ‘mitigate’ or ‘pacify’? If that’s the case, perhaps Bale is making a punning joke, referring to someone saving face or calming a situation down by ignoring what they’ve seen? Again, it’s unlikely; the spelling Nitigo seems assured here (besides which, this meaning doesn’t seem to fit with the context of the piece).

Then, most peculiar of all the clues here, there’s this:

One of the most wonderful and beautiful arrangements for marking the flight of time ... could have been seen some years ago in ta garden in the French quarter of New Orleans. It was nothing less than a clock made up of flowers ... The owner of the garden in New Orleans appears to have improved upon the list given by Linnaeus and found plants which bloom up to midnight, among the latter ones being several varieties of cacti. Enough plants were found, at all events, to form a circle in the shape of a dial-face, with a plant for each of the twenty-four hours. Among the plants for the latter hours of the day he had the garden nitigo, which opens at five in the afternoon.
The Jewelers’ Circular and Horological Review (Vol. 27, 25 October 1893)

That’s a report from an American clock-makers’ journal, apparently inspired by an even earlier account of a New Orleans flower-clock reported in the American press back in 1886. And there, hidden away at the bottom, is a reference to a flower called a “garden nitigo” that only blooms at 5pm.

Is this the nitigo we want? Is Bale referring to someone who keeps their eyes covered all day until enough time has passed that they can safely uncover them after dark? It’s a nice idea, certainly, but it’s not without its problems.

There are more than three centuries separating Bale’s Jack Nitigo and this New Orleans floral clock. There’s also there small matter of the Atlantic Ocean separating them, too—and again, finding any other reference anywhere to a flowering plant called the garden nitigo has come up short.

So where does this expression come from, then? Despite some tantalizing lines of inquiry, we’re really none the wiser.


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