The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Greek to Me
Greek to Me
Adventures of the Comma Queen
by Mary Norris

Hardcover (2 Apr 2019), 240 pages.
(Due out in paperback Apr 2020)
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9781324001270

The Comma Queen returns with a buoyant book about language, love, and the wine-dark sea.

In her New York Times bestseller Between You & Me, Mary Norris delighted readers with her irreverent tales of pencils and punctuation in The New Yorker's celebrated copy department. In Greek to Me, she delivers another wise and funny paean to the art of self-expression, this time filtered through her greatest passion: all things Greek.

Greek to Me is a charming account of Norris's lifelong love affair with words and her solo adventures in the land of olive trees and ouzo. Along the way, Norris explains how the alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon, goes searching for the fabled Baths of Aphrodite, and reveals the surprising ways Greek helped form English. Filled with Norris's memorable encounters with Greek words, Greek gods, Greek wine' - and more than a few Greek men' - Greek to Me is the Comma Queen's fresh take on Greece and the exotic yet strangely familiar language that so deeply influences our own.


Sing in me, O Muse, of all things Greek that excite the imagination and delight the senses and magnify the lives of mortals, things that have survived three thousand years and more, since the time before the time of Homer, things that were old then and are new now—you know, the eternal. If that's not too much to ask, Muse. Please?

I don't know what gave me the idea I was good at foreign languages. I was an indifferent student of French in high school, though I longed to study at the Sorbonne instead of on the banks of the Cuyahoga. When I was in about fifth grade, my father refused to let me study Latin. The nuns had handpicked some students for a Saturday Latin class, and I was keen on it, but Dad flatly refused. My father was a pragmatic man. He worked for the fire department—one day on and two days off—and he could do anything around the house: roofing, plumbing, carpentry, laying linoleum. He grew up during the Depression, when jobs were scarce, so for him security was paramount.

When I asked Dad to let me study Latin, he stamped out that flame like a pro in his fireman's boots. Was Dad against education for women? Yes. Was he worried I would come too much under the spell of the nuns and join the convent instead of getting married and settling down in the neighborhood? Probably. Had he missed the story of how the father of John Milton, recognizing the lad's genius, had him tutored in Latin and Greek from earliest youth? Apparently. Had he been scarred by a dead language? Yes! As a teenager, my father, who had been kicked out of three high schools, was sent by my grandmother to Ontario, Canada, to stay with his uncle, who had been educated as a Jesuit seminarian but backed out just before taking his final vows—went over the wall, as they say—and returned to Ontario to farm pigs. Uncle Jim taught my father a few things, and my father passed them on to us at the dinner table, such as the proper way to feed a horse an apple (with the palm flat) and the myth of Sisyphus, whose eternal punishment was to roll a boulder up a mountain and have it always roll back down, so he had to start over again. It sounded like a particularly bleak life lesson. What activity might merit a statuette in the shape of Sisyphus? Renewed effort in the face of certain failure? Undying hope? Persistence in ordinary life? Anyway, my father associated the classics with punishment, the eternal damnation of Sisyphus in Tartarus or the temporary banishment of a juvenile delinquent to the remote home of his maternal ancestors in rural Ontario. So when the nuns invited me to study Latin on Saturdays, Dad said, "No way," and I missed that first chance to learn Latin while my brain was at its most absorbent.

In college, I continued with French for a year and then dropped it. My junior year, I took a course in linguistics and had a flare- up of lust for Latin. I would soon graduate and have to decide what to do next, and I had just figured out that four years of a liberal arts education was a delightful absurdity, a legitimate escape from real life, from Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, a deferral of career and responsibility. I would study Latin, a dead language, for the sheer impracticality of it. I would know the joy of being a total nerd. But my linguistics professor, Whitney Bolton, talked me out of it. Latin, he said, would serve only to teach me about English. I didn't think to ask what was wrong with that. Remember, many linguists believe we are born hardwired to acquire language: I didn't need Latin to know English. Professor Bolton, whom I liked—he had a round head and a buzz cut, and reminded me of Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter—told me I would be better off studying a living language, one that I could use in my travels. How did he know I wanted to travel? And Latin was spoken only in the Vatican. So I scratched that itch by taking a year of German. I've traveled a lot since then, but not in Germany, where Oktoberfest would no doubt have untied my tongue. Meanwhile, German did teach me a lot about English.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Greek to Me by William Norris. Copyright © 2019 by William Norris. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An educational and entertaining ode to the Greek language, culture and history from the New York Times bestselling author Mary Norris.

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Mary Norris' Greek to Me received an overwhelmingly favorable response from our First Impression reviewers, with 18 out of 23 rating the book four or five stars.

What it's about:
Part travelogue, part memoir, part tutorial, this book is an homage to the Greek language, culture and mythology, and their impact on the author's life (Carol C). Ms. Norris' new book chronicles her challenges in achieving (semi-)fluency in Greek, which she studied diligently by day while copy editing through the graveyard shift at the New Yorker to pay her bills. The book is also a paean to the richness of the Greek contribution to Western Civilization, as well as a travelogue documenting Norris' visits to multiple locales cited in Greek mythology. Here and there she alludes to elements of that mythology poignantly reflected in incidents from her personal life (Teresa R).

Morris' account of traveling and her love of Greek culture and history struck a chord with many readers:
I found the author to be a kindred spirit because I too fell in love with Greece years ago. Her memoir brought to mind experiences and memories from my past travels (Mary Ann R). I grew up loving Greek mythology, and this book reignited that interest. I enjoyed her enthusiasm about all things Greek and the history of the country (Linsay R).

The author was judged to be a wonderful guide on this journey:
Admittedly this book won't appeal to all, but what a fun romp through Greece with Ms. Norris! As a lover of language I am in awe of her story (Marganna K). What a fun book! It was like sitting down with a very down-to-earth chatty friend and comparing notes about all things classical - languages, literature and travel (Kathryn S). I was charmed. I loved traveling with her as an outsider who realizes that she will never fully understand life in this foreign land but loves it anyway (Courtney N).

Some readers did find the material challenging or offered caveats:
Her knowledge is so extensive that it's often overwhelming to absorb even a portion of what she offers. She made me dig deep, and I probably won't retain most of what I learned, but that doesn't matter. The book was fascinating and challenging (Christine P). It helps to have at least a smattering of knowledge about Greek and Roman mythology and geography, and the Latin and Greek languages, especially if acquired firsthand through travel in Greece (Kathryn S). Knowing NOTHING about the Greek language (save a few common crossword clues), the language parts were a bit lost on me (Carolyn D).

But most enjoyed the opportunity to learn something and related to Norris' love of language:
After reading Greek to Me, I am ready to reread the Iliad and the Odyssey, and a few classic Greek plays (Elizabeth K). If you neglected to take "Greek Civ 101" back in the day, this erudite but wryly entertaining book will nicely fill that gap (Teresa R). What a treat it was to encounter an author who admires language as much as I do! (Patricia E). Ms. Norris has written to a niche audience I think, but I am part of that select group—a lover of words, their origins and their roots. (Marge V). A tribute to the written and spoken word, Greek To Me allows the reader the pleasure of meeting a writer who breaks all stereotypes for proofreaders, linguists and copy editors. Norris' sense of adventure and contagious love of learning for learning's sake shines through every page (Patricia E).

Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Kirkus Reviews
A delightful celebration of a consuming passion.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
At the center of it all is her passion for Greek , a language often 'held to be impenetrable,' yet which gives her 'an erotic thrill, as if every verb and noun had some visceral connection to what it stands for.' For those who have long followed the Comma Queen, her latest outing will not disappoint.

Author Blurb Ann Patchett
What a fantastic book! Not only is Greek to Me educational, entertaining, and gorgeously written, it shows us how intellectual curiosity coupled with a dash of bravery can pave the way for a more meaningful life. Mary Norris does for Greek and Greece what Cheryl Strayed did for hiking. Readers will long to follow in her footsteps.

Author Blurb Steve Martin
I fell in love with Mary Norris's first book, and am now even more in love with this charming, ribald, highly informed, and always funny excursion through the language, culture, and oddities of Greece and the Greek language. An adventure tale for intellectuals - and also for the rest of us.

Author Blurb Madeline Miller, best-selling author of Circe
In Greek to Me, Mary Norris' love for all things Greek is palpable and infectious. She is a charming, insightful guide through both ancient and modern glories, and I expect her lush descriptions of the Greek countryside to provoke a tourism stampede.

Author Blurb David Grann
As a reader, I would follow the writer Mary Norris wherever she goes, and I found myself enthralled by this wondrous journey through Greek myths and language and art. Norris brings everything into the glimmering light - most of all the beauty of words.

Author Blurb Caroline Fraser
Poignant, antic, hilarious, Mary Norris is the definition of wearing your learning lightly, and after a lifetime of Greek immersion, pouring beer libations, and skinny-dipping in the waters of Aphrodite, her lessons slip down sweetly. This book is true ambrosia.

Author Blurb Ian Frazier
Mary Norris, our master grammarian, proves that knowing the rules sets you free. Here she writes about Greek language, culture, and mythology with an untrammeled grace that's a delight to read and, almost incidentally, a demonstration of high-level literary skill. Greek to Me is a book to dive into - a page-turning and wonderful achievement.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Cloggie Downunder
Informative and entertaining.
“Why do we lean on dead languages for new things? Perhaps expressing these things in the language that is oldest, in words that we have in common with many other languages, gives us a touchstone.”

Greek To Me: adventures of the Comma Queen is a memoir by self-admitted philhellene and best-selling American author, Mary Norris. She has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. Norris has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen. She begins by declaring her fascination with all things Greek, and explaining how and why she came to study ancient Greek under the aegis of The New Yorker.

She explains how the Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician, and many other alphabets from Greek; why Athena is a good model for a copy editor; and she declares her respect for those authors of definitive works on Greek and Greece.

This is a memoir that isn’t bound by chronology but is filled with Norris’s love for Greek, and her experiences with Greek and in Greece. Norris takes us on her somewhat comic pilgrimage to Elefsina in search of the Eleusinian Mysteries; she details her short stage career in Greek tragedies, one that had her recalling her family’s own tragedy and drawing on experiences of her own and those close to her; she describes days copy editing, nights immersed in Greek; skinny-dipping in Aphrodite’s Bathing place in Crete; visits to, and exploration of, the Acropolis.

The echoes and connections in the English language that Norris makes with ancient Greek are sometimes obvious, sometimes personal and quite tenuous: when she explains it, an anthology is a word bouquet; Dipsás? (Are you thirsty?) has an obvious connection with dipsomaniac.

Norris notes today’s reverse trends: audio books taking us back to the oral tradition; reading on devices requiring scrolling so many thousands of years after scrolls were abandoned for books; and texting language that omits vowels, just as the Phoenician alphabet did.

On alphabets, she tells us: “A ‘character’ is a symbol for recording language… the word comes from the ancient Greek charásso, meaning ‘to make sharp, cut into furrows, engrave.’ The leap from a symbol graved in stone to a person endowed with a sharply defined personality is a good example of the way a word ripples out into metaphor.”

For the unenlightened, there is much to be learned from this memoir: where the terms uppercase and lowercase come from; that omicron literally means small O and Omega, big O; how the direction of text originated; the absence of spacing; the irony that the modern Greek word for eucalyptus derives from ancient Greek, but via English, as the English botanists who named it in Australia in 1788 did so from ancient Greek.
The etymology is often interesting: “If surgeons knew that the word surgery comes from the ancient Greek cheirougia (hand work) meaning ‘handiwork’, and could apply as well to needlepoint as to brain surgery, they might not be so arrogant.” Informative and entertaining.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Carol T
And ode to language lovers
I've always loved Mary Norris' writing. She makes all things understandable. Nearly a 5 star, but I wasn't as enamored of all the travels as I was of the language sections.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Alice R. (Wilmore, KY)
Language Guru
I liked reading this book for a few reasons. I have a Ph.D. and teach in education. I was actually drawn to this by the authors passion for the subject. I can relate to having a passion for something and making it my mission that everyone else join my train :) I think this book would appeal to anyone who loves languages and history!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary P. (Bellingham, WA)
Greek to Me
The author, Mary Norris, is an unabashed devotee of Greece-- its language, culture, history. ancient remains. Her enthusiasm comes through in this memoir, written with love and humor. Greece, here I come!

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Patricia G. (Dyer, IN)
Ode on a Grecian Yearning
I thoroughly enjoyed traveling with Mary Norris through her experience of all things Greek, both ancient and modern. I truly learned something new on every page, and her vibrant voice and comprehensive scholarship brought each detail to life. Although I do not expect to visit in person, I loved vicariously being there through Mary's enthusiastic retelling.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Marganna K. (Edmonds, WA)
I love this book primarily for Mary Norris' writing style. The book is a memoir, a travelogue & a study of all things Greek. Admittedly this book won't appeal to all but what a fun romp through Greece with Ms. Norris! As a lover of language I am in awe of her story - I'm quite challenged by any foreign language - and learning more about mythology has been on my bucket list forever.
For me this book was not a quick read - each page is packed with rewarding goodness ! I loved the author's humor & ability to share such beautiful insights about her love of all things Greek. I will be reading her other books & will recommend this book wholeheartedly.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Susan L. (Alexandria, VA)
Greek Immersion
Norris indulges her love of all things Greek in this book and shares her passion for the language, both modern and ancient, as well as for the people and culture of Greece. The book was a delightful introduction to a land that changed and influenced language itself.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Kathryn S. (St. Helena Island, SC)
Greek To Me
What a fun book! It was like sitting down with a very down-to-earth chatty friend and comparing notes about things classical - languages, literature and travel. It helps to have at least a smattering knowledge of Greek (and Roman) mythology, mythology,classical languages (Latin and Greek) and geography, especially if acquired first hand through travel in Greece. Throw in a dash of New Yorker copy-editor asides, and you have a recipe for an entertaining evening's read.


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Greek Influence on the English Language

Painting of the Greek nymph Echo by Talbot HughesAs Mary Norris notes in her travelogue/memoir/historical narrative Greek to Me, many words and terms in the English language are derived from Greek. These range from somewhat arcane medical and scientific terminology, to more commonly used words and phrases. The etymological evolutions are generally divided into three categories: learned borrowings, neologisms and vernacular words.

Learned borrowings came from the work of Medieval and Renaissance scholars studying Greek texts. These include words like "telescope" from the Greek  τηλεσκόπος, meaning "far-seeing."

Medical, scientific and technical neologisms (new words created from Greek prefixes and suffixes) make up the great majority of the words with Greek roots in the English language. For example, "schizophrenia" is a combination of the Greek prefix schizein (σχίζειν) meaning "to split" and the suffix phren (φρην) meaning "mind."

The vernacular words are those that are commonly found in everyday speech. Most of these transitioned into English by way of Latin, and sometimes also through a Romance language, like French. For example, the Greek word βούτυρον became the Latin word butyrum which became the English word "butter." "Problem" comes to English from the Greek problema (πρόβλημα) via Latin and then Old French translations. "System" comes from the Greek systema (Σύστημα), also through Latin translation. "Music" originates in the Greek mousikē (μουσική), which literally means "art of the Muses." It came to English through the Latin and Old French languages.

The Muses, of course, were figures from Greek mythology that inspired artists and writers to create their work, and there are many more examples of words related to myth that we use in English today. The word "echo" comes from the name of a Greek nymph (Ηχώ) famous for storytelling. Hera punished Echo over a perceived slight by taking away her greatest gift, leaving her largely speechless, only able to repeat words said by others. The word "fury" comes from the Greek Furies (Ἐρινύς), goddesses of vengeance referenced in the Iliad.

Many of the words and phrases used in grammar and literary analysis are also derived from Greek translations, which is not surprising since the Greeks were titans of the written arts. These words include "dialogue," which originates in the Greek word dialogos (διάλογος), meaning "conversation." "Metaphor" comes from Latin and Old French translations of the Greek word metaphorá (μεταφορά), which means "transfer" or "to carry over," as in to transfer the meaning of one thing to another. The word "grammar" itself is derived from the Greek grammatike (γραμματική), meaning "the art of letters."

Greek to Me provides many more examples of how the Greek language has informed English, along with fascinating insight on the country's history and culture.

Echo by Talbot Hughes, courtesy of Greek Legends and Myths

by Lisa Butts

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