I recently attended a presentation, given by a forensic anthropologist, on the various procedures and techniques used to investigate a crime scene. In the discussion on managing evidence, the presenter made an aside on the relationship among the words testify, testimony and testicle, rooted in the shared latin word testis. Those comments prompted me to explore further the etymological connections between these terms, leading to an examination of certain cultural practices in Ancient Rome that were the purported cause of the semantic split.
All three words come from the latin testis which means witness.
- Testify: means “to bear witness” or “third person standing by1“, evolved along the following path: Latin “testis” (witness) → Latin “testari” (to bear witness) → Old French “testifier” → Middle English “testifien” → Modern English “testify.”
- Testimony: relates to what one says as a witness, evolved along the following path: Latin “testis” (witness) → Latin “testimonium” (evidence/proof) → Old French “testimoine” or “temoing” → Middle English “testimonie” → Modern English “testimony.”
- Testicle: means the male gonad, evolved along the following path: Latin “testis” (witness or gonads2) → Latin diminutive “testiculus” → Old French “testicle” → English “testicle.”
Historical linguistics often provides intriguing insights into the evolution of words and the cultural practices they reflect. One prevailing theory to explain the semantic shift of testes towards testicles posits that, in a symbolic context, they might be seen as ‘witnessing’ the act of intercourse or more broadly, as a witness to virility3.
A second theory submits the semantic shift is related to the practice of men swearing oaths while holding their testicles, akin to the contemporary act of swearing on a Bible. This latter explanation was the one promoted by our presenter, however, this claim is contentious due to a lack of concrete evidence that such practices were in use in Ancient Rome4.
Katz addresses this evidentiary gap in the Roman historical record by referencing other cultures that he submits did follow this practice, therefore inferring they were or might have been in used in Ancient Rome. Starting with Genesis Chapter 24 in the Bible5, then to rituals in Ancient Athens involving the testicles of ritually sacrificed animals6, and finally he explores the Ancient Umbrians, suggesting they held their testicles during the dedication of a sacred votive7. However, each of these arguments has its challengers8 .
Katz underscores the weight of an oath sworn with one’s genitalia in hand, emphasizing its symbolic potency. As he posits that such an oath implies severe consequences for deceit, impacting not only the individual but also subsequent generations9.
While the linguistic and cultural influences submitted by this second theory are undoubtedly captivating, it currently lacks tangible evidence and thus remains shrouded in ambiguity. [Wilton]
- Katz, Joshua T. “Testimonia Ritus Italici: Male Genitalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 98 (1998): 183–217. https://doi.org/10.2307/311342.
- Wilton, Dave. “Testify.” Wordorigins.org. 6 May 2022. (https://www.wordorigins.org/big-list-entries/testify
- “The Proto-Indo-European root is trei, with a base meaning of three, and testify and related words come from the compound root tri-st-i, meaning something like third person standing by, in other words a witness to the fact or truth.” [Wilton] ↩︎
- Katz points out that even in Ancient Rome, testes held a double meaning, and were also figuratively accepted to mean testicles. In that examination he refers to Miles Gloriosus a comedic play written by Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254–184 B.C.) to point out the double meaning of the word: “The play with the two meanings of testis in this scene of Plautine comedy is not an isolated pun” [Katz] ↩︎
- ibid. ↩︎
- “The … myth is that the Latin word comes from a purported Roman practice of men grabbing each other’s or their own testicles when swearing an oath. The myth dates to the medieval period and is simply not true. We have many accounts of Romans swearing oaths, and not one involves touching anyone’s testicles. The myth, in fact, has the etymological flow reversed. The Latin testis, and therefore the English testicle, come from the metaphor of the testicles being a testament to a man’s virility.” [Wilton] ↩︎
- “Abraham was now very old, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, ‘Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”” Wilton comments “It’s clear that thigh here is a euphemism for the genitals, but the significance of the gesture is unclear and a matter of scholarly debate. It could be a call to his descendants to ensure the oath-taker keeps his word. Or it may be a form of curse, preventing the oath-taker from siring children should he break his word.” ↩︎
- In Ancient Greece there was a special legal use of the testicles of ritually slaughter animals in an Athenian homicide trial and occasionally elsewhere [Katz] ↩︎
- “When you wish to sacrifice a votive bull-calf, dedicate it to Jupiter on the same day. When you dedicate it, hold a disk in your hand. Use the following words: ‘Jupiter Sancius, to thee I dedicate this votive bull-cafe.’ Three times declare it fit for presentation, three times pronounce it a votive offering. Sacrifice it to Jupiter for the gens Lucia among the Atiedian Brothers.” [Katz] Katz interprets disk as being balls, that is male genitalia. His rationale is draws on the Proto-Indo-European root of trie (three) suggesting a three dimensional object — a sphere or ball — rather than a two-dimensional object, a disk. ↩︎
- “There is a huge gulf between the nomadic Hebrew tribes of the Bronze Age and ancient Rome, and one cannot take a vague allusion in the Hebrew Bible and apply it to a civilization a millennium and more than a thousand miles distant.” ↩︎
- “An oath sworn with genitalia in hand makes a powerful symbol and is a contract not easily broken: the implication is that the bearing of false witness brings a curse upon not only oneself, but one’s house and future line. The connection between the organs of procreation and binding oaths is most clear …”[Katz] ↩︎