Final Word

Was Shakespeare a plagiarist or politician?


The issues surrounding South African firefighters in Canada were absolute Greek to me. How could they have acted so irrationally while on foreign soil? (Read more)

Over the weekend it came to light that even Canadian premier Rachel Notley was fighting the firefighters’ corner because they were seriously short-changed on their remuneration. That cleared up that part of the issue.

However, some elements of the whole affair remain Greek to me. On its website the firefighters’ employer, Working on Fire, calls itself an Expanded Public Works Programme - a government-funded undertaking.

In its statement in response to the firefighters going on strike it refers to itself as a (PTY) Ltd. All the strands just do not come together.

A conversation on the subject got me thinking about the origin of the expression “it’s Greek to me”, meaning one does not understand something at all.


The first impression I got was that Shakespeare might have been a plagiarist for having used the expression – usually ascribed to him –  in his 1616 play Julius Caesar. It turns out that Thomas Dekker used the expression, and more clearly in the sense it stuck, in 1603 in his play Patient Grissel.

The real truth is that probably not one of the two Elizabethan playwrights can claim to having first created the expression. Both were well read in the classics, and digging deeper it turns out that the expression comes from the Medieval Latin proverb Graecum est; non potest legi (It is Greek; it cannot be read.)

It also turns out that the Latin American slang word, gringo, we here in South Africa became familiar with from Hollywood movies as referring to Americans, has the same roots.

It comes from the Spanish versions of the ‘it’s Greek to me’ expression, which is hablar en griego when somebody is speaking unintelligibly.


Something else that presently is often Greek to ordinary South Africans is all the political manoeuvring in the country – an appropriate expression, seeing that we also get the word ‘politics’ from the ancient Greeks.

Politics, which the website says was first in 1520 defined as “science of government”, was modelled on Aristotle’s ta politika (“affairs of state”, or to be more correct in the context of Aristotle’s time, “affairs of the cities”), the name of his book on governing and governments, which was translated in English in the mid-15th century as Polettiques, a Latinised version after the trend of the day.

From 1769 it also took on the meaning of “a person’s political allegiances or opinions”. Exactly when the term ‘politician’ came into use could not be established.

The root word is poly, meaning many, and the more cynical among us might claim that the second part, ‘-tics’, refers to blood-sucking parasites.

Maybe it will help people understand politics better if they take a look at the ‘definitions’ for ‘politics’ and ‘politician’ given by Ambrose Bierce in his 1993 The Devil’s Dictionary.

  • Politics; A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage; and
  • Politician: An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organised society is reared. When he wiggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
by Piet Coetzer

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