Is It All Greek To You? Thank Medieval Monks, And The Bard, For The Phrase Ben Zimmer, language columnist at The Wall Street Journal, explains the origin of the phrase "it's all Greek to me" — and shares a few variants from other languages.

Is It All Greek To You? Thank Medieval Monks, And The Bard, For The Phrase

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If you've been following the Greek financial crisis, you have certainly seen a certain cliche pop up. Here are some of the headlines we've seen. In USA Today, there was If It's All Greek to You, Here's the Skinny on Debt Crisis. The BBC says, All Greek to You? Greece's Debt Jargon Explained. We're all guilty of it. NPR has If the Mess in Greece is All Greek to You, Then Read This. I know my fellow Shakespeare lovers out there are all well aware that this phrase comes from the bard, right? Well, kind of. We called up Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He says Shakespeare is probably responsible for the popularity of the phrase.

BEN ZIMMER: Because it appears in his play "Julius Caesar." There's a character who's describing the speech of Cicero, who is a learned scholar. He actually knew Greek. But this character didn't really understand what Cicero was saying, and he says, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Cassius) That so say anything?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Casca) Aye, he spoke Greek.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As Cassius) To what effect?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (As Casca) Nay, and I tell you that, I'll never look you in the face again. For those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads. But for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

RATH: But Shakespeare didn't actually come up with its Greek to me. The phrase appeared in a translation of an Italian play decades earlier. Its true origin is a bit of a mystery, though Zimmer says there's a pretty good guess. Back in the days before the printing press, medieval monks would copy old Latin manuscripts to preserve them, but the Greek alphabet through them for a loop.

ZIMMER: So if they were copying a Latin manuscript and they came across a Greek quotation in the manuscript, they might have trouble actually trying to copy that part. And so as a kind of a cop-out they might just write, in Latin, graecum est; non legitur, which means this is Greek; it cannot be read.

RATH: Now, here's the really weird thing. It seems like those lazy monks, or whoever's behind it's all Greek to me, were just expressing a universal human sentiment. Zimmer says there's a version of this phrase in many languages.

ZIMMER: In Finnish, you might say it's all Hebrew. In Italian, you might say, this is Arabic, or this is Aramaic to me.

RATH: And in Greek, the expression is this is all Chinese to me.


THE BEATLES: She said, you don't understand what I said. I said, no, no, no, you're wrong. When was I was boy...

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