Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Testmony on the Origin of “Testimony”


The Right Honorable William Hupy raised another interesting question in an e-mail to me today. In his words, “Testament, testate, testator and the feminine equivalent testatrix, testimony and testis! [Emphasis mine.] What do all of the former words have to do with the latter if anything? According to my dictionary, testis is the root word and even there, the Latin origin is shown with the meaning of ‘witness’.”

We know the answers to some of the questions surrounding these words but not all. Testimony comes from Latin testimonium,”made up of testis “witness” and, possibly, a noun from monere “to remind.” Testis in the sense of “witness”, comes from the same root as Latin tri “three,” also the origin of English three. Testis was originally a compound noun rather like *tri-sta-i- meaning, roughly, “third person standing by,” with the *sta- root found in English stand and stead.

How the meaning of the Latin word testis wandered off to its other meaning, the one English borrowed, is one of the great unsolved mysteries of etymology. The funniest theory is that the Romans placed their right hands on their testicles and swore by them before giving testimony in court. Cute but no evidence. Another speculation is that we are dealing here with two words coincidentally spelled identically, testis in the sense we use it, coming from testa “pot, shell”, also the source of French tête “head”. More convincing but still pure speculation with no analogies of the sound changes required.

So, history bears no witness to the connections between the family jewels and witnesses—which is always more fun since we are allowed to concoct whatever relatively reasonable etymologies as please us.

5 Responses to “Testmony on the Origin of “Testimony””

  1. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    Latin testa also gave rise to Italian testa (head).

  2. rbeard Says:

    Indeed, same origin as the French tete.

  3. Richard Says:

    Testis is the medical word for testicle: is it possible that this word underlies testify and testimony?

    The evidence that it was used as a source of truth telling is Genesis 24:2-3 2 “And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, 3 and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and of the earth, that….

    The fulfillment (or failure, the sencond part) of the oath means, according to Deuteronomy 33:11, “Bless, O LORD, his substance, and accept the work of his hands; crush the loins of his adversaries.” The Idea here being that the Loin as the seat of heredity, but also of the will. (The heart in the OT was the seat of reason).

    There is also a strong connection to the Covenant, hence circumcision as this line from Jeremiah 30:6 suggests: “Ask now, and see, can a man bear a child? Why then do I see every man with his hands on his loins like a woman in labor? Why has every face turned pale?” (Judah facing total destruction).

    I am aware of it being a common practice in other ancient cultures also but I have no access now to quotes to demonstrate that.

  4. Leon Says:

    Apparently all explanations are as weak as the others. It shows that when we don`t like one explanation, we try to made another up.

  5. Amay P. Ong Vaño Says:

    I have another version re the etymology of the word “testify.” It is derived from two Latin words: “testis,” meaning “testicle,” and “facere,” meaning “to do, to make, or to hold.”

    During ancient Roman times, when a Roman was asked to be a witness or to testify, he was required to touch his testicles and swear by them to tell the truth under penalty of sterility by their Roman gods. Sterility in many cultures, particularly during ancient Roman times, was a personal curse and socially embarrassing. In fact, it is said that on a Lupercal, an ancient Roman festival observed on February 13 through 15 to avert evil spirits and to purify the city, thereby releasing health and fertility, Julius Caesar instructed Marcus Antonius to touch even just slightly Caesar’s wife Calphurnia, who was watching the race during the festival, of which Marcus Antonius was a participant, as soon as the latter would pass her by and thereby hopefully by divine intervention cure the barrenness of Caesar’s wife.

    Perhaps, this might also be the reason why women during those ancient Roman times were not allowed to testify or swear to tell the truth, much less did they have any civil rights, because they had no testicles.

    Amay P. Ong Vaño
    Cebu City, Philippines

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