All Greek to me
One of the, admittedly few, advantages of learning ancient Greek is that I cannot with any degree of honesty use this phrase. Figuratively, though, it is used to denote total incomprehension. But why Greek?
Before I unmask the origin, I need to debunk a commonly held misconception. As great a dramatist as William Shakespeare was and as inventive a user of the English language as he undoubtedly was, it is almost inconceivable that all the phrases that came into common currency in the Elizabethan era owe their origins to him. It is true that the Bard used the phrase in an exchange between Casca and Cassius in the play, Julius Caesar, dating from 1601. Casca reporting on a speech of Cicero’s says “I, he spoke Greeke”. When asked what the great orator said, Casca reported, “those that understood him, smil’d/ at one another, and shooke their heads; but for mine/ owne part, it was Greeke to me”.
There are, however, some earlier examples of the phrase in print. The poet, George Gascoigne translated the prose comedy of the Italian playwright, Ludovico Aristo, under the Anglicised name of Supposes and it was performed at Grays Inn in 1566. Balia, after asking Polynesta to explain herself, comments, “this geare is Greeke to me; either it hangs not well together, or I am very dull of understanding: speak plaine, I pray you”. Even if we don’t understand the word geare, it means talk, the meaning of the phrase is crystal clear. Interestingly, Gascoigne introduced the phrase into the text, it not being there in the original.
The Scottish historie of Iames the fourth, slaine at Flodden, written by the English author, Robert Greene and published posthumously in 1598, contained the phrase, “tis Greeke to me”. A year before Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Thomas Dekker includes this exchange in his play, Patient Grissel; “asking for a Greek poet, to him he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue./ Why, then it’s Greek to him”. This usage is relatively rare, it is normally Greek to the speaker rather than a third party, but nonetheless there is sufficient evidence to debunk the attribution to Shakespeare and to suggest that it was in currency from at least the middle of the sixteenth century.
Indeed, it is likely that the origin comes from the commonplace marginalia of a frustrated monk who cannot make head nor tail of the text that he is laboriously copying, Graecum est, non potest legi. In case that is Greek to you, it means it is Greek, it cannot be read. The phrase escaped the confines of the cloisters, perhaps aided by the destruction of the monasteries during the Reformation. And why Greek? The language was less well known and understood even among the educated classes, particularly in comparison with the lingua franca of the time, Latin. And the Greek script can be off-putting to a beginner to get their head around.
In the eighteenth century variants emerged. John Wesley, in Advice to a People called Methodist from October 1745, wrote, “To ninety-nine of them it is still heathen Greek”. And amongst the lower orders, at least according to Francis Grose’s A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, there was St Giles’s Greek, defined as “the slang lingo, cant or gibberish”. This was picked up in the rather snooty editorial introduction to a letter written in the vernacular which Jackson’s Oxford Journal deemed to publish on March 4, 1786; “we are desired to publish the following intercepted Letter to the Informer of the Robbery at Magdalen College, written, as it appears, by one of the Gang, in the Language which they call St Giles’s Greek”.
Unadulterated Greek won out, though. The Dutch have a similar phrase although the object of their incomprehension is the Latin tongue, whereas the Italians are baffled by Arabic and the French Chinese. Even the few speakers of Esperanto profess to be perplexed by Volapukaio. We all have our crosses to bear, it would seem.