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It’s Greek to me

Q From Florence C Goold: I am trying to find out who first uttered the phrase it’s Greek to me.

A It’s usually attributed to William Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar: “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me”. But virtually the same phrase had been used the year before (1600) by another Elizabethan playwright, Thomas Dekker: “I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue. Why, then it’s Greek to him”. Actually, the phrase is older than both of them: it comes from a Medieval Latin proverb “Graecum est; non potest legi” (It is Greek; it cannot be read). Both the Latin and the English meant then just what the phrase does now, to refer to something that is unintelligible. As an aside, the Spanish version of this proverb is “hablar en griego”, which is commonly said to be the origin of the word gringo, so somebody who is called a gringo is literally accused of speaking Greek and hence being unintelligible.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 12 Dec. 1998

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-gre1.htm
Last modified: 12 December 1998.