by Alicja Minda
If there is one book a housebound editor should gravitate toward in the time of a pandemic, it is Mary Norris’s latest book, Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen. A former copy editor and long-time query proofreader at The New Yorker, Norris earned her reputation as the “Comma Queen” with her 2015 New York Times bestseller Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (reviewed on BoldFace in 2015). In her new book, she takes the reader on a journey of discovery of the Greek language and of Greece itself, conjuring up images of sunbathed Mediterranean landscapes and ancient ruins. Greek to Me is an entertaining read full of startling observations about English and the contemporary use of language, delivered with humour and a healthy dose of irony. It’s also a deeply personal book, seamlessly blending travelogue with references to mythology and intimate memories.
In eight chapters, Norris describes how her “taste for dead languages” led her—then in her early thirties and working in The New Yorker’s collating department—to take up Greek, kindling a lifelong fascination. In the process, she uncovers the Greek roots of the English alphabet and many English words. “You already know more Greek than you think you do,” she tells the reader, tossing in examples from the human anatomy (“larynx”), medicine (“gynecologist”), the natural world (“ocean” and “dolphin”), and the world of inventions (“helicopter” and “telephone”). “When the English-speaking world needs to name something, it turns to the ancient language,” she quips.
But there is also a much more nuanced comparative study of both languages in this book, including the untranslatability into English of certain Greek particles found in classical writing. Norris wonders if, given the chance, she would “edit the juice” out of Plato’s Socrates, following her instinct as a copy editor to purge the text of throat-clearers. She also devotes more than six pages to decoding the ambiguous Homeric epithet glaukôpis Athena, often translated by lexicographers as “gray-eyed” or “bright-eyed” Athena. It’s a delightful investigation that involves dozens of synonyms for “blue.”
Just like in Between You & Me, Greek to Me has many references to editing, especially to the way it used to be done at The New Yorker, as well as to the history of the magazine itself. For example, Norris describes the now-obsolete collating process, where she and her colleagues would combine changes in the text made by a piece’s editor, writer, the editor-in-chief, proofreaders, fact-checkers, and the libel lawyer, producing a new, clean copy. Today, all of these meticulous tasks can be done with a single click in a word processor.
And in what seems like a fairy tale in our current gig economy, The New Yorker paid for Norris’s course in modern Greek at what was then called the NYU School of Continuing Education, recognizing the subject had some bearing on her work. Her later petition for reimbursement of courses in classical Greek studies at Columbia University met with some initial resistance, which the Comma Queen, by then working on the copy desk, eventually wore down with the help of “a list of words from the Greek that cropped up in The New Yorker” and with support from the magazine’s famous grammarian, the late Eleanor Gould.
Yet, there is more to Greek to Me. Norris uses her Greek adventures as a vehicle to talk about her private life, family, religion, sexuality, relationships—all with a subtle, sometimes self-deprecating sense of humour that makes the book both funny and touching. Exploring mythology helps her process a childhood trauma. And exploring Greece enables her to assert her independence as a woman and as a solo traveller, sometimes by flirting with and sometimes by fending off scores of forward Greek suitors who just cannot believe she wants to be left alone. “Greek was my therapy in those days, my relief from my native tongue and the life that went with it,” she confesses.
Writing about Athena allows Norris to revisit the models of femininity she was confronted with as a girl—that of her mother, who “cooked, made the beds, swept the floor” and “rarely went anywhere” and those offered by the nuns in the all-girl Catholic high school Norris attended. Yet, Norris is able to find a third model: “Athena turned out to be a good model for a copy editor. She wouldn’t worry about offending a writer or whether a writer liked her or not, and she wouldn’t let anyone get away with anything.”
In another chapter, Norris recounts her trip to Cyprus in search of the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, “the goddess of beauty and love and sex and desire,” which becomes a pretext to discuss years of therapy the author underwent to deal with depression and a lack of self-love, rooted in her mother’s ingrained belief that girls were worth less than boys. The story of overcoming these burdens concludes with a tongue-in-cheek account of what can only be described as the Comma Queen re-enacting Botticelli’s Birth of Venus by skinny-dipping at Aphrodite’s Beach. “The current pushed me gently back to shore and I washed up onto mounds of bleached seaweed, as cushiony as confetti,” she writes. “I felt reborn.”
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen is a versatile book that will appeal not only to philhellenes (admirers of all things Greek), but also to linguists, writers, editors, translators—in fact, anyone interested in language and culture. It’s also more revealing than Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, making for an engaging mix of fact, memoir, and travel writing. Published in the United States in April 2019, Greek to Me was released in Canada on April 14, 2020. The book can be acquired also through the Toronto Public Library—these days as an e-book or an audiobook.
Alicja Minda is a freelance journalist, editor, and research analyst, and a student affiliate of Editors Canada.
This article was copy edited by Jennifer D. Foster.