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In "In the Midst of Alarms" (1894) by Robert Barr, the author is describing a man who was trying to make a friendly conversation with a rural young woman:

“Yes,” Yates laughed uneasily. He had manifestly missed fire. “I notice by your tone that you evidently think my equipment meager. You should not judge by appearances, Miss Howard. Most of us are better than we seem, pessimists to the contrary notwithstanding. Well, as I was saying, the camping company consists of two partners. We are so different in every respect that we are the best of friends. My partner is Mr. Stillson Renmark, professor of something or other in University College, Toronto.”

For the first time Margaret exhibited some interest in the conversation.

“Professor Renmark? I have heard of him.”

“Dear me! I had no idea the fame of the professor had penetrated beyond the precincts of the university—if a university has precincts. He told me it had all the modern improvements, but I suspected at the time that was merely Renny’s brag.”

The frown on the girl’s brow deepened, and Yates was quick to see that he had lost ground again, if, indeed, he had ever gained any, which he began to doubt. She evidently did not relish his glib talk about the university. He was just about to say something deferentially about that institution, for he was not a man who would speak disrespectfully of the equator if he thought he might curry favor with his auditor by doing otherwise, when it occurred to him that Miss Howard’s interest was centered in the man, and not in the university.

I don't understand why he chose "the equator" in particular to give an example. Did "equator" have a different meaning from its common one in 19th-century English literature?

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  • My immediate impression was that it might have to do with race and colonialism, but on re-reading it, I'm not too sure.
    – nick012000
    Dec 28 '20 at 16:28
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Nothing in the passage suggests it means anything but the ordinary meaning of "equator."

The significance of the sentence is to explain how servile and obsequious he is being. Is there any reason to speak with particular respect of the equator? But he would do so if he could win Miss Howard's approval and regard -- and without concern for his own actual views.

Choosing the "equator" is exactly because it's absurd.

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Googling revealed the same phrase used by O. Henry in "A Cosmopolite in a Cafe" (published in The Four Million, 1906 — i.e., after your quotation).

My cosmopolite was named E. Rushmore Coglan [...] He took the great, round world in his hand, so to speak, familiarly, contemptuously, and it seemed no larger than the seed of a Maraschino cherry in a table d'hôte grape fruit. He spoke disrespectfully of the equator, he skipped from continent to continent, he derided the zones, he mopped up the high seas with his napkin. With a wave of his hand he would speak of a certain bazaar in Hyderabad. Whiff! He would have you on skis in Lapland. [...]

So it was a set phrase at the time. Further Googling reveals that it's in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, attributed to the Reverend Sydney Smith:

No one minds what Jeffrey says: [...] it is not more than a week ago that I heard him speak disrespectfully of the equator.

This is actually the punch line of a funny story told in Lady Saba Holland's memoir of her father (the aforementioned Rev. Sydney Smith). Here's the whole story:

The reigning bore [circa 1797] in Edinburgh was ——; his favourite subject, the North Pole. It mattered not how far south you began, you found yourself transported to the north pole before you could take breath; no one escaped him. My father declared he should invent a slip button. Jeffrey fled from him as from the plague, when possible; but one day his arch-tormentor met him in a narrow lane, and began instantly on the north pole. Jeffrey, in despair and out of all patience, darted past him, exclaiming, "D— the north pole!" My father met him shortly after, boiling with indignation at Jeffrey's contempt of the north pole. "Oh, my dear fellow," said my father, "never mind; no one minds what Jeffrey says, you know; he is a privileged person; he respects nothing, absolutely nothing. Why, you will scarcely believe it, but it is not more than a week ago that I heard him speak disrespectfully of the equator!"

TLDR: The literal meaning is exactly what Tsundoku said; but a sufficiently literary reader at the time might have derived some pleasure from recognizing this comical phrase as a (random, essentially further-meaning-less) allusion to an earlier literary work.

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    Great answer. It really seems that the wording was established and recognized by the literary knowledgeable readers. Found a usage by Oscar Wilde (see first paragraph)
    – Martin
    Mar 3 at 10:48
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Barr is using the noun equator in its geographical sense. However, the Equator contrasts with Professor Stillson Renmark and University College in Toronto, in two ways:

  • from a Canadian point of view, the Equator is far away, and when making inconsiderate or even disrespectful comments about something far away, you are much less likely to offend the person you are talking to than when making the same type of comments about someone or something in the same country; the likelihood that your conversation partner has some connection with the subject of conversation is much smaller;
  • the Equator is just an imaginary line, not a person or an institution, so you cannot offend it anyway.

For these reasons, making disrespectful comments about the Equator, e.g. to make someone laugh, would be a very low-risk contribution to the conversation.

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Could it just be a non-standard use by this author in this passage to achieve a bit of a poetic feel?

I can't help but thinking about "equate", "equation", and "equative" which have the meaning of making equal, and I wonder if this is used in the sense of "one who equates", "one who is equal", or even "partner". (If professor Renmark is a professor of mathematics, he might also be an "equator" in the sense of working with equations.)

So when this passage speaks of "equator" and "auditor", maybe the non-standard usage is to make the "...or" verbal parallel. Though I would have used "inquisitor ... equator" if I were trying to do that.

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