Tag Archives: Thomas Dekker

What Is The Origin Of (246)?…

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.

What Is The Origin Of (145)?…


Mind your Ps and Qs

When I was a child I was occasionally told to mind my ps and qs, by which my parents meant that I had better behave properly and mind my manners. I instinctively knew what was meant – after all, I had probably committed some misdemeanour or social faux-pas – but over time it began to dawn on me that it was a rather odd phrase. I had always taken it as an abbreviation for the phrase “mind your pleases and thankyous” which has the virtue of reflecting the modern usage. However, as is often the case in the shady world of etymology, not all is at it may seem.

What first sowed seeds of doubt on my understanding of the phrase’s origin was Francis Grose’s definition in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1785; “to mind one’s Ps and Qs – to be attentive to the main chance.” Someone who is on the look-out to gain an advantage isn’t necessarily a person whose manners are impeccable.

And if we delve back into the 17th century there were variants of the phrase – p and q or pee and kew – which were slang expressions for superior or, at least, better quality. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a line from Samuel Rowland’s Knave of Hearts, dating from 1612, which goes “Bring in a quart of Maligo, right true; And looke, you Rogue, that it be pee and kew.” Theories that the p and q are abbreviations for prime quality founder in trying to explain that pesky conjunction in the middle. Some have suggested that the p and q stand for measures of drink, pints and quarts, but that doesn’t look right in the context of Rowland’s usage.

A slightly earlier variant is to be found in Thomas Dekker’s The Untrussing of the Humorous Poet from 1602. Afinius hands Horace a cloak because it looks as though it is going to rain and goes on to comment, “for now thou art in thy Pee and Kue, thou hast such a villainous broad back.” It would seem that the Pee and Kue is a reference to some form of apparel and some have suggested that the Pee relates to a sailor’s pea coat and the Kue to a queue, a form of pigtail.

Another possibility opens up when you consider a poem by Charles Churchill, written in 1763 which told of the travails associated with learning the alphabet. It goes “on all occasions next the chair/ he stands for service of the Mayor/ and to instruct him how to use/ his As and Bs and Ps and Qs.” Rather like bs and ds, ps and qs can cause the aspiring student some difficulties. They are essentially the mirror image of each other and the neophyte may easily transpose one for the other. For jobs which require text to be read back to front, such as the hot metal typography in old-style printing, the two letters can generate mistakes and an element of caution would need to be exercised.

It is hard to make sense of all of these competing claims. My original supposition – an abbreviation of please and thankyou – is unlikely because it is only independently attested in the 20th century. However, I am attracted to the theory that it relates to the difficulties of learning the alphabet, an admonition which then broadened through use to one of a general warning to exercise caution. It may well be that the 17th century usages have no bearing at all to the phrase we use today, perhaps having a different origin which, alas, is lost in the mists of time.