submitted by Peter Makarthis on 08.03.2015
“When Greek meets Greek” – Why we say this.
This often misquoted saying is an English saying rather than of a Greek saying and originates from an play written by Nathaniel Lee in the late 17thCentury.This expression has been used to headline reports of conflicts by opposing parties in law disputes, wars, civil matters, anecdotes,satire and cartoons in the Australian press from earliest times. On occasions Greeks themselves have been the protagonists.
This item from the Huon Times (Franklin, Tasmania) on 13 August 1926 gives us an insight into origin the expression that has been misquoted so often:
WHY WE SAY IT.
“When Greek Meets Greek.”
‘Some men’s fame is of the slightest, and it is remarkable that only one well-worn phrase should remind us that the Englishman, Nathaniel Lee ever lived and wrote.
If a thousand people were asked to quote the saying they would without exception, say:”When Greek meets Greek , then comes the tug of war,” and if they were asked to explain its meaning they would say: “Greeks being famous and stubborn fighters, when one Greek meets another there is no quarter given. It is a fight to the death”.
That is undoubtedly the popular view of the meaning of the saying. Yet there are few misquotations farther from the original than this, for in Nathaniel Lee’s forgotten tragedy, “the Rival Queens of Alexander the Great” of which this single line only one has survived, the line reads: “When Greeks joined Greeks then was the tug of war.” It was designed to show that so united the Greeks in defence of their country that, when all stood shoulder-to-shoulder, nothing could defeat them.
Nathaniel Lee was a man of culture and education, educated at Westminster School and Cambridge. That he was a considerable literary figure in this time is proved by the fact that he collaborated with John Dryden.’
Researched and written
Peter Makarthis (McCarthy)
8 March 2015
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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