February 14, 2001
Byron Annis wrote:
A couple of years ago, I read in a novel that the word testify is derived from the same Greek root as testicle. It was explained that in ancient Greece men giving testimony were required to cover their genitals with their hand. Finding this interesting and worth further investigation, I looked up the word in all of the etymological sources in our local library and found only one citation which indicated that the word was derived from Latin and was related to Roman custom, but there was no mention of the aforementioned male appendages. Can you elucidate?
This etymology has appeared in a number of places, in print and on the Internet, but it isn't true. However, the words are interesting, and the relationship between them isn't completely clear. There is no evidence anywhere that a Roman or a Greek had to put his hand on his testicles in order to validate his testimony when swearing in court.
Let's start with the Latin root since that's where both of these words come from. The Latin word testis originally meant 'witness'. It comes from the Indo-European roots *tre- meaning 'three' and *sta- meaning 'stand'. A witness was 'a third person standing by'. From that came the verb testificare 'to bear witness', which evolved into Middle English testify in the fourteenth century.
Where it gets confusing is that testis also -- although not originally -- meant testicle in Latin. The English word testicle comes from Latin testiculus, a diminutive of testis, and first appeared in the fifteenth century. If testis meaning 'witness' and testis meaning 'testicle' are indeed the same word, then the etymology could be that the testicles are 'witness' or evidence of virility.
There is also a theory that testis/testicle comes from the Latin testa 'pot', referring to the testicle's shape.
The Oxford Latin Dictionary says that testis meaning 'testicle' is probably "a special application" of testis meaning 'witness' and refers the reader to the Greek word parastates which means 'one who stands alongside another'. In addition to singular and plural, Greek (along with Old English, Arabic, and a few other languages) has what is called a "dual" that denotes two of whatever is being talked about; it is used for things that come in pairs, like hands and feet. The dual form of parastates means 'testicles', which are 'two glands standing alongside each other'. It is conceivable that Latin simply took these two senses of the Greek word and translated them with testis. That seems to me to be the theory that makes the most sense.
In the book of Genesis there are several passages in which a man who is taking an oath puts his hand "under the thigh" of the man to whom he is swearing: "And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house...Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh: And I will make thee swear by the Lord...." The Hebrew word in this passage is yarek, which means 'thigh' throughout the Old Testament. My Biblical expert says that this ritual seems to come from the idea that the thigh is the locus of power, probably because it's near the genitals. He also notes that some modern interpreters of the Bible envision it as a swearing on the genitals, with "under the thigh" being a euphemism which goes all the way back to the Hebrew.
I think it is very likely that these Biblical passages are the source of the popular notion that testify derived from testicle.
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