Shakespeare had Hamlet say “… it is a custom / More honored in the breach than the observance.” Ironically, that could be said of the way some of Shakespeare’s other lines are “quoted,” which is to say misquoted. Where many people “remember” the phrase “gild the lily,” the words Shakespeare actually wrote in King John were “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily….” And the line that serves as the title for today’s post often gets misremembered in the simplified form “There’s method in his madness.”
But etymologists aren’t mad, and they have their own method for getting at the truth, which in this case leads to the origin of método/method. Spanish and English borrowed the word from Latin methodus, which meant ‘a way of teaching, mode of proceeding,’ and ultimately ‘a method.’ The ‘mode of proceeding’ sense takes us back to the Greek original, methodos, which arose as a phonetically altered compound of meta- ‘beyond’ and hodos ‘a way, journey,’ so a method is etymologically ‘a way of going onward.’
This blog deals primarily with word origins, but let’s add something about pronunciation. The Latin spelling reflects the Greek original, but the Romans didn’t have a th sound (or even an h sound, for that matter), so they pronounced their borrowed methodus as if it were *metodus. French has méthode, where the h is likewise silent, and Spanish no longer even preserves a silent h in the modern spelling método. English, however, long ago found the method for pronouncing both a voiceless and a voiced th sound, and therefore does pronounce the th in method. To most speakers of a Romance language, pronouncing that sound is maddening, yet Spanish speakers in Spain, who have found the method to pronounce at least a voiceless th, nevertheless don’t insert that sound into método.
© 2012 Steven Schwartzman