The Grammarphobia Blog

A method to the methodology?

Q: When we accountants write about the “methodology” for cost allocations, we are trying to make our work sound more important than if we had used “method.” How do you feel about the use of “methodology” to mean, as it often does, a fancy method; a complex method, a glorified method, rather than, based on its roots, the study of method?

A: Etymologically, “methodology” does mean the study of method, and that was the word’s original meaning in the early 19th century. But it has grown and prospered since then.

In 1800, when it was first recorded in English, “methodology” meant “the branch of knowledge that deals with method generally or with the methods of a particular discipline or field of study,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Subsequently, the OED says, the word also came to mean “the study of the direction and implications of empirical research, or of the suitability of the techniques employed in it.”

And more generally, Oxford adds, “methodology” simply means “a method or body of methods used in a particular field of study or activity.”

In our opinion, many people use “methodology” as a bigger and fancier word for a method or methods. But they’re not incorrect in doing so, as you can see from that OED definition.

Nevertheless, we’d use the word “method” if we were referring to a method. If the simpler word would do, why not use it?

The fancier word is made up of the noun “method” plus “-ology,” which the OED says is used in “forming nouns with the sense ‘the science or discipline of (what is indicated by the first element).’ ”

The word element “-ology” (like the shorter “-logy”) is Greek in origin and is used to form nouns meaning a branch of study or knowledge.

The ultimate source is the Greek logos (variously meaning word, speech, discourse, reason). Added to the end of a word, -logos means one who discourses about or deals with a certain subject, as in astrologos (astronomer).

As for “method,” the noun entered English in the early 1400s by way of French (méthode). Its classical ancestors are the Latin methodus (mode of proceeding), and the earlier Greek methodos (pursuit).

As John Ayto explains in discussing “method” in his Dictionary of Word Origins, “ ‘Pursuit’ of a particular objective gradually developed into a ‘procedure for attaining it,’ the meaning which the word had when it entered English.”

The word “method” still has that general meaning: “a procedure for attaining an object,” as the OED says, or “a way of doing anything, esp. according to a defined and regular plan.”

But Oxford also includes this: “A special form of procedure or characteristic set of procedures employed (more or less systematically) in an intellectual discipline or field of study as a mode of investigation and inquiry, or of teaching and exposition.”

Hmm. That definition of “method” sounds a lot like the general  meaning of “methodology.”

While “methodology” is a perfectly legitimate word, the OED points out that many “-ology” nouns were jokes.

“The earliest formations on purely native elements are mainly humorous and nonce words,” the dictionary says. It mentions “trickology” (trickery, first recorded in 1723); “caneology” (the doctrine of using the cane for punishment, 1837); as well as the self-explanatory “dogology” (1820), “bugology” (1843), and “noseology” (1819).

We’ll close with a quotation, given in the OED, from William John Locke’s novel The Wonderful Year (1916): “Much might be written on noses. The Great Master of Noseology, Laurence Sterne, did but broach the subject.”

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