Dear Word Detective: Recently, for no particular reason, I began reading “Julius Caesar” by Shakespeare. (I’m 32 years old and not matriculating at a university, but it seemed like a good thing to do.) I noticed that in Act 1, Scene 2 Casca says, “… it was Greek to me,” meaning he literally didn’t understand Caesar when he spoke in Greek. Just wondering if this is the origin of the phrase “It’s Greek to me,” meaning “I don’t understand what you are saying (whether in Greek or not).” — Neta J., Catonsville, MD.
Seems reasonable to me to take up reading Shakespeare. It certainly beats paying attention to what’s going on out there. In fact, I’ve been considering retreating completely into 18th and 19th century literature and really living the life depicted therein. I’ve already given up radio and TV news, I listen almost exclusively to the music of those times, and our house was built in the 1860s, so I figure if I can swing a crate of candles, I’m good to go. I wonder if they sell antimacassars on eBay. And I guess I’ll need a musket to shoot the TV.
I get a lot of questions from people who have come across a well-known phrase in something written years ago who are wondering whether they’ve found the origin of the phrase. In most cases they haven’t, and have just fallen prey to what is known as the “Recency Illusion,” the assumption that idioms we use today must be of fairly recent vintage. The use of “really” as an intensifier (“It was a really great concert”), for instance, strikes most of us as a semi-slang modern usage. But this usage actually dates back at least to the early 18th century (“This last Bill was really frightful,” Defoe, 1722).
If you go far enough back, however, you may actually find the source of a phrase, which is what you have stumbled across in Shakespeare. His usage of “it was Greek to me” is usually considered the first use of the phrase in print, although another playwright of the day, Thomas Dekker, had used a similar construction just a year earlier. What Shakespeare meant by the phrase is exactly what it means today: that something is utterly unintelligible, a complete mystery, as obscure as if it were written in a language one does not speak.
While Shakespeare may have been the first to use that form of the phrase in print, the actual idiom is much older, dating back at least to the Medieval Latin saying “Graecum est; non potest legi,” which means “It is Greek — it cannot be read.”
Incidentally, the Mexican Spanish word “gringo,” a contemptuous term for someone from the US, evidently has a similar root. There are many theories about “gringo,” mostly centering on the mid-19th century Mexican-American war (such as the one that traces it to the song “Green Grow the Rushes” supposedly sung by US troops). But Spanish dictionaries of the early 19th century list the idiom “hablar en griego” as meaning “to speak in Greek,” i.e., “unintelligibly,” and the altered form “gringo” was actually applied — in Spain — as a term of contempt to anyone who spoke Spanish badly. So while we in the US may associate “gringo” with Mexico, it was apparently invented in Spain.