Michael Macrone

Short Takes

(East Bay Express Books, November, 1991)
BY Michael Macrone
HarperCollins (1991) $17.00.
Reviewed by Robert Hurwitt

Something seems to have happened to Michael Macrone in the year since his Brush Up Your Shakespeare! was published. It's Greek to Me!, the second in his “Brush Up". series of books tracing the classic origins of common words and phrases-this time from Greek and Roman literary sources—lacks a good deal of the brash wit of its predecessor. It also lacks a lot of that book's coherence. The phrases cited are broken into so many subcategories-some by author (Homer, Plato, Cicero, Juvenal), some by genre (“Greek History,” “Greek Philosophy," etc.), that the organization is "hard to follow. And the book is plagued with inconsistencies: What's this phrase from Plato doing in the “Miscellaneous” section? How can the same author who calls “thrasonical” a “common adjective" refer to Plutarch as “hardly remembered and even less read today"? Some of the historical material, too, is a bit confused, if not downright misleading.

Perhaps it's a lesser familiarity with his sources (Macrone specialized in Elizabethan drama at Cal), perhaps it's just the enormity of the task he's taken on, but the author has less fun with setting each phrase in its original context than he had with the Bard. He also leaves out an awful lot, such as most of the common terms derived from Greek mythology. (He says he's saving that for the next book, but since many of the Greek authors deal with mythic matters the division feels forced.) And he neglects quite a few phrases you'd think would fit his bill: “Where there's life there's hope" and "Charity begins at home” (both from Terence, I believe); Euclid's famous “QED” and Heraclitus’ “Nothing endures but change''; or Aesop's “bell the cat” and “The gods help them that help themselves.” Still, for those of us with only a passing familiarity with the classics, the book is well worth a browse—for a number of its good, chatty derivations, or to learn that thumbs up was actually the signal to put a defeated gladiator to death, or that Caesar didn't really say "Et tu, Brute?” (He spoke his last words in Greek.) And how can you resist a book that demonstrates that the US motto, "E Pluribus Unam," came from a recipe for herb salad?

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First published in the East Bay Express Books (November 1991)

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