The New Yorker’s Comma Queen Mary Norris discusses her encounters with the Greek language

May 7, 2019

Julie Clack

Mary Norris, an author and copy editor for the New Yorker, came to Princeton to discuss her new book “Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen.” The standing-room only event, held at Scheide Caldwell House, was hosted by the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies and cosponsored by the Humanities Council and the Program in Journalism

“The Seeger Center supports creative expression in and about Modern Greece by sponsoring events such as readings, concerts and translation workshops, both on Princeton’s campus and at the Princeton Athens Center,” said Dimitri Gondicas, director of the Seeger Center. “Mary Norris and her strong ties to Greece, which are articulated beautifully in her new book, provided an excellent opportunity for the Center to foster this mission.”

Norris is a longtime colleague of John McPhee, an author and a Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence at Princeton. Each spring semester, she speaks to the sophomores in McPhee’s journalism course “Creative Nonfiction,” regaling them with stories of her three decades as a copy editor.

The Humanities Council is home to the Program in Journalism and the Program in Humanistic Studies,” said Kathy Crown, executive director of the Council. “Norris’ work in creative nonfiction bridges both of these core communities that come through the doors of the Joseph Henry House.”

Norris’ new book “Greek to Me,” which was published earlier this month, “gives an account of Norris’ lifelong love affair with words and her solo travels 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.” 

During her talk, Norris read excerpts of “Greek to Me” to illustrate how she wove years of travel writing, poems and notebooks into a memoir that “recaptures her fresh responses to all things Greek.” 

Crown gave a response to Norris’ talk and opened the floor to questions, which ranged from inquiries about Norris’ experiences in Greece to copyediting tips.

Some words of wisdom from the Comma Queen? “A good copy editor should be full of self-doubt and always thinks about things at least twice,” said Norris.

She added: “They should also own a really good dictionary!”