English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Methinks, therefore meseems

Q: Please settle an argument.  A friend (who is usually my first point of call for any grammatical queries) recently wrote, “If she’s as much like I as methinks she is.”  I suggested this should be “If she’s as much like me as I think she is.” The argument has now spread to three continents with me (or I) very much in the minority. I will abide by your judgment.  Unless it goes against me, in which case I will remain silent!

A: Both of you are partly right.

You’re correct to suggest that your friend should have written “as much like me.” But your friend is perfectly within her rights to use “methinks,” which is a very old construction, a mashup roughly meaning “it seems to me.”

So what she ought to have written is “If she’s as much like me as methinks she is.”

“Methinks” (past tense “methought”) is a very old “syntactic collocation” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary) that’s still occasionally used in a poetic or deliberately archaic way.

It dates back to early Old English, when it was recorded in the writings of King Aelfred. A similar formation meaning the same thing, “meseems,” appeared several hundred years later, around 1400, but it was never as popular as “methinks.”

Shakespeare must have been very fond of “methinks.” He used it at least 150 times in his plays and sonnets, according to searches of Shakespearean databases.

A few examples: “The lady protests too much, methinks” (Hamlet); “O, look! methinks I see my cousin’s ghost” (Romeo and Juliet); “This night methinks is but the daylight sick” (The Merchant of Venice).

The word (and it is regarded as a single word) persisted long after the Elizabethans. The OED has many examples, including some from 20th-century literature. Here’s a sampling:

“Methinks a strait canal is as rational at least as a mæandring bridge.” (From Horace Walpole’s Anecdotes of Painting in England, 1780.)

“Methinks a person of delicate individuality … could never endure to lie buried near Shakespeare.” (From Nathaniel Hawthorne’s essay collection Our Old Home, 1863.)

“Anne, methinks I see the traces of tears.” (From Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables, 1908.)

“They are only jealous, methinks.” (From Mavis Nicholson’s memoir Martha Jane and Me, 1992.)

Nothing wrong with using a quaint old antiquity, even if you’re not reciting Shakespeare.

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