Why We Say “Pardon My French,” “It’s All Greek to Me,” and Other National Idioms

Wednesday, July 123 min read

From “doing as the Romans do” to your date insisting on “going Dutch,” there is no shortage of international idioms in English. People from all walks of life — William Shakespeare, Italian saints, and American emigrants included — have played a role in coining these well-known expressions.

It’s All Greek to Me

Current usage: To not comprehend something.

William Shakespeare popularized this phrase in Act 1, Scene 2 of Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. It is spoken by Casca:

Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?

Casca: Ay, he spoke Greek.

Cassius: To what effect?

Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ th’ 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.

In these lines, Casca describes a speech that was deliberately given in Greek so not everyone could understand it. Ancient Romans were usually bilingual in Latin and Greek, but Greek usage had declined by the Middle Ages. Around this time, the phrase “Graecum est; non legitur” — “It is Greek and therefore is impossible to read” — began popping up. Eventually, “Greek” was used to refer to anything that couldn’t be understood. The idiom was translated from Latin into English, and by the 16th-century Elizabethan era, it was a popular phrase that would have been understood by anyone watching Shakespeare’s play. Today, other languages have adopted the idiom and made it their own, with a few tweaks.

International equivalents of “It’s all Greek to me”:

  • Czech: To je pro mě španělská vesnice (“It’s a Spanish village to me”)
  • German: Das kommt mir spanisch vor (“That seems Spanish to me”)
  • Greek: Εμένα, αυτά μου φαίνονται Κινέζικα (“To me, this appears like Chinese”)
  • Bulgarian: Все едно ми говориш на патагонски (“It’s like you’re talking to me in Patagonian”; but Spanish is the primary language in the Patagonian countries of Chile and Argentina.)

Pardon My French/Excuse My French

Current usage: To apologize for using profane or offensive language.

Why don’t we say “Pardon my Spanish” or “Excuse my Italian”? This idiom originated in the Middle Ages, when the French-speaking Duke of Normandy — better known as William the Conqueror — invaded England in 1066 CE and brought the French language with him. French influenced many aspects of English because it was seen as the fancier language, and everyday words were flipped into terms of prestige — “house” became “mansion,” “pig” was “pork,” and “offspring” was “progeny.” So, in everyday conversations, English speakers were saying “Pardon my French” in a literal way, to highlight their use of French.

By the mid-18th century, the phrase was used more metaphorically. An example of this is found in an 1895 edition of Harper’s Weekly in a discussion with an American tourist: “‘Do not the palaces interest you?’ I asked, inquiringly. ‘Palaces be durned! Excuse my French.’”

Nearly 100 years later, one of the most memorable modern uses of the phrase appeared in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Cameron (Ferris’ best friend) says, “Pardon my French, but you’re an a**h***!” while on the phone with the dean of students, Ed Rooney.

When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do

Current usage: To embrace local customs and habits in an unfamiliar place or situation.

Often shortened to “When in Rome…,” this idiom is usually said lightheartedly while trying new things. Unsure about trying that unfamiliar regional food delicacy on your vacation? “When in Rome…” The expression is not exclusive to usage in Rome, though — it can refer to new places and experiences around the world.

The phrase might have been coined in the fourth century by St. Ambrose (of Milan) during a conversation with St. Augustine, who had just arrived in Milan and was unfamiliar with the local customs. He was reportedly shocked to find that the clergy did not fast on Saturdays (as they did in Rome). St. Ambrose gave him a bit of advice: In a new place, it is essential to adapt to the local customs. The phrase as we know it first appeared in English centuries later, around 1530.

Going Dutch

Current usage: To split the bill; to pay for yourself.

If you go to the movies with a friend and each pay for your own ticket, you could say you’re “going Dutch” — but the phrase likely has nothing to do with Dutch people from the Netherlands. It actually originated in the U.S. from the phrase “Dutch treat” (or “Dutch lunch/supper”), after the Pennsylvania Dutch (immigrants from Germany and Switzerland, not the Netherlands) tradition of bringing their own food to potlucks. The idiom “going Dutch” is slightly newer, dating to at least 1914.

Featured image credit: Tanya Dol/ iStock

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