Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

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


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 15, 2012 @ 17:12:29

    Well. First I had to sort out the voiced and voiceless th sound. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve come across the phrase “dental fricative”.

    But never mind that. What caught me here was the religion of my childhood and youth: Methodist! “A way of teaching, mode of proceeding”? You bet. None of that Papist frippery for us! We didn’t have Stations of the Cross, but we had the church library.

    On the other hand, my family was Methodist only because of Grandma’s pragmatic streak. She and Grandpa came to this country as Swedish Lutherans. The Klan was active in Iowa when their kids were little, burning crosses on the lawns of Catholics. The Klan wasn’t given to fine theological distinctions, and kept confusing the Lutherans with Catholics. Ergo: it’s conversion time. Grams marched everyone down to the Methodist Church and put them on the rolls.

    I think I need to go back one entry and re-check “ludicrous”. 😉


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Apr 15, 2012 @ 22:13:02

    That’s a fascinating tale, and a rare (I assume) reason for picking a denomination. I could say it was ludicrous, but it provided a method to escape the wrath of the unlettered mob. I like your understatement that “The Klan wasn’t given to fine theological distinctions.”


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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