Famous Sayings #167 — ‘It’s All Greek to Me’

November 3, 2019

The teacher tried to explain how and when to use certain equations in Calculus, but it’s all Greek to me.

Image cropped with added text. Original Image by Michelle Maria from Pixabay.

This is a famous saying that I had been working on for weeks, but with schedule changes and an increased workload, I hadn’t found the time to do this justice. Fortunately, I had done some prior research, so there wasn’t much to do for this post except write the thing.

Anyway, this is a phrase I have inherently known the meaning of but hadn’t really thought to investigate. One can say that “It’s all Greek to me” is a dead metaphor because of how the idiom has evolved since it first became popular. I’ll explain below.

What Does ‘It’s All Greek to Me’ Mean?

When someone says, “It’s all Greek to me,” they are saying that they don’t understand what they just read or heard. Usually, people who say this are referring to how something (like instructions, language, mathematics, or anything that is complicated) is hard to understand or unfamiliar to them. In circumstances, the person can be referring to something they just don’t want to take the time to understand.

How Did This Famous Saying Originate?

According to the Grammarist, the idiom “It’s Greek to me” (or it’s variation “It’s all Greek to me”) was coined during the Middle Ages. The phrase was first used in Latin; the phrase Graecum est: non legitur translates to “It is Greek; it cannot be read” (“all Greek to me meaning”). Medieval scribes would insert the Latin phrase when they were copying parts of manuscripts that they couldn’t translate or found to be illegible (Grammarist).

The phrase was only popularized by Shakespeare, who inserted it into his 1599 play Julius Caesar. In the play, Sevilius Casca is the person who utters the line, in Act I, Scene II, Verses 278-284. Casca is one of a group of conspirators who want to overthrow Caesar because they are afraid that he would be corrupted by the power that the Roman people wanted to bestow upon him. During a meeting with the other conspirators, which include Cassius and Brutus, Casca talks about festival in which Caesar was offered — and he rejected — a crown three times.

When asked if the orator Cicero did speak during the festival, Casca said that he did, but Casca could not understand what Cicero said because he was speaking in Greek.

Cassius: Did Cicero san any thing?

Casca: Aye, he spoke Greek.

Cassius: To what effect?

Casca: Nay, an’ I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again; but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

According to Shmoop, this line had a double meaning. While Casca could not understand Greek, he may have also meant that all foreign languages basically sounded the same.

Thomas Dekkar also used the idiom in his play Patient Grissel (1603):

FAR: Asking for some Greek poet, to him, he fails. I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue.

RIC: Why, then it’s Greek to him.

Why Do Some People Refer to “It’s All Greek to Me” as a Dead Metaphor?

Well, a dead metaphor is a figure of speech whose imagery has been lost due to repeated usage. Most people can understand what a dead metaphor means without being aware of its earlier connotation because the dead metaphor has been assigned a newer, conventional meaning. However, scholars have disagreements over how to classify terms like these, with some asking whether dead metaphors are dead or metaphors at all (“Dead metaphor”).

What Does This Saying Mean to the Greeks?

As Dan Nosowitz points out, this idiom is funny to many Greeks, who may say this idiom to illicit a laugh form English-speaking people, especially Americans. The Greeks themselves use a similar phrase, “To me, this appears like Chinese.”

Are There Similar Sayings Around the World?

Of course, and most languages mention Chinese as being the most difficult language to understand (Various — “Greek to Me”).

To be perfectly honest, there are hundreds of Chinese languages, but Mandarin is one of the most widely used and it is one of the most difficult to learn. Mandarin is a tonal language with characters that are, according to linguist David Moser, “only barely phonetic.” According to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a U.S. government department that trains foreign diplomates, Mandarin is a level-five (out of five) language, which takes English speakers at least 88 weeks to gain proficiency in. Even many native Mandarin speakers can forget which characters to use for certain words (Nosowitz).

By the way, the Chinese themselves may say that something looks like it comes from “heavenly script,” among other things (Ager).

Works Cited

Ager, Simon. “Translations of It’s all Greek/Chinese/Hebrew/Arabic to me in many languages.” Omniglot, https://omniglot.com/language/idioms/incomprehensible.php>. Accessed 6 October 2019.

“all Greek to me meaning, definition, examples, origin, synonyms.” The Idioms, https://www.theidioms.com/all-greek-to-me/. Accessed 6 October 2019.

“It’s Greek to me and it’s all Greek to me Definition.” Grammarist, https://grammarist.com/idiom/its-greek-to-me-and-its-all-greek-to-me/. Accessed 6 October 2019.

Mango Languages. “It’s All Greek to Me: ‘The Phrase.’” YouTube, 27 September 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfkDSOwgvkY. Accessed 2 November 2019.

“Shakespeare Quotes: It’s Greek to Me Intro.” Shmoop, https://www.shmoop.com/shakespeare-quotes/its-greek-to-me/. Accessed 6 October 2019.

Various Authors. “Dead metaphor.” Wikipedia, Last Updated 4 December 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_metaphor. Accessed 2 Nov 2019. Various Authors. “Greek to Me.” Wikipedia, Last Updated 6 October 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_to_me. Accessed 6 October 2019.


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