Methinks vs. I Think

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An archaic verb form that survives in modern speech, thanks to its presence in a well-known quotation from Hamlet, is methinks. A Google search for “methinks” brings up more than five million hits.

The quotation appears in the “mousetrap scene” in Hamlet. Traveling actors are performing a play written to Hamlet’s specifications. He wants to dramatize his father’s murder and produce a guilty reaction in his stepfather. The Player Queen gives a highly charged speech about her feelings for her husband, swearing that, should he die, she will never remarry. Hamlet asks his mother, “How do you like the play?” Uncomfortable with the speech because of her own remarriage, Hamlet’s mother replies, “The lady protests too much, methinks.”

Modern speakers frequently misquote the line as, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much” and seem to believe it means something like, “I think the person is trying to hide something by denying it so strongly.”

Methinks is not the equivalent of “I think.” The thinks in methinks comes from the Old English verb thyncan: “to seem” or “to appear.”

The think in “I think I’ll drive to Tulsa this weekend” comes from Old English thencan: “to think.”

Methinks means “It seems to me.” Originally, it was spelled as two words. The me is an indirect object: “It seems to me.” Now it is spelled as one word, although some modern speakers, imagining that it means, “I think” spell it as two words.

Note: Using methinks as if it meant, “I think” equates to such baby talk as “Me wants a cookie.”

The past tense of methinks is methought:

Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep.” –Macbeth, Act II, scene ii.

Another misunderstood word in the Hamlet quotation is protest. Modern speakers interpret it to mean, “to object,” but Gertrude means it in the sense of “to promise.” She thinks the Player Queen is overdoing her promise never to remarry should her husband die:

Player Queen: Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
If once I be a widow, ever I be a wife!
Paraphrase: May nothing but trouble hound my steps for the rest of my life if I ever remarry after my husband’s death.

Here are a few examples of how methinks is being used on the Web:

Me thinks I have the perfect frame for it.

Me thinks I’m in need of some serious psychiatric help.

Me thinks you drank a wee bit too much one night.

Methinks Jay Leno Is a Closet Conservative/Libertarian.

Methinks ESPN’s Chris Broussard WANTS to get fired.

Because so many speakers are already confused about the proper way to use the pronouns me and I, it may be a good idea to retire the use of methinks–at least at the beginning of a sentence.

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4 thoughts on “Methinks vs. I Think”

  1. This is somewhat confusing. I’ll take your word for it that the “think” in “methinks” has a different etymology than the one in “I think” but even if so, I can’t see a functional difference.

    “It seems to me” means the idea was put in your head by appearances, so that is now what you think is so.
    In all the examples given, “It seems to me that” and “I think that” appear to be fully synonymous, and as is often said around here, “a difference that makes no difference is no difference.”

    Hamlet’s mom thinks the player is overstating her promise. Because it seems to her that the player is overstating her promise.

    Sure, Iguess it’s possible to acknowledge an appearance, yet doubt it.
    “It seems to me you made the elephant disappear into thin air, but I don’t think you really did.”
    Which would justify a statement like “Methinks it is so, but I think it is not so.” but that’s not what any of the cited examples are doing.
    They are all, including the Hamlet quote, saying, it seems so, and so I think it is so.”

    I’m more surprised about meaning of “protest” as “promise.” I’d never heard that, and that really does change the meaning.

  2. “Because so many speakers are already confused about the proper way to use the pronouns me and I, it may be a good idea to retire the use of methinks–at least at the beginning of a sentence.”

    You are so right, Maeve.

  3. Methinks the word whence suffers from similar misuse because its sound implies a different word. This makes for crapulent writing and speaking.

  4. The writer suggests an orthodoxy that simply did not exist. Both usages came from the same Proto-Germanic root *þankijaną, but diverged somewhat in the early Middle Ages, before merging again in Middle English, well before Shakespeare. There is only limited evidence that the terms were not used interchangeably, and as ApK points out extremely well, in many cases the two meanings are functionally identical.

    Personally, I despise the word “ouster”, but I don’t claim unjustifiable language orthodoxy to justify my antipathy. I simply avoid watching news about revolutions and coup d’état so as to avoid hearing the word spoken.

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