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Swearing on one’s testicles

Q From Ron Ferguson: I just saw this on the Net and wondered if it was true: was the word testify based on men in the Roman court swearing to the truth of a statement on their testicles?

A I’ve seen that, too. This would seem as good a moment as any to scotch the story. There really is a strong link between testicle and testify (as well as attest, intestate, testament, contest and other words) but those who swear by this belief have misunderstood the matter.

The Latin word for a witness was testis, which derives from an Indo-European word for the number three. That was because the Romans regarded a witness as what we would call a trusted third party, one who stands aside from the dispute and can tell it how it really was. The Romans did also use the word testis in a figurative way to mean testicle. The idea seems to have been that a testicle was a witness to a man’s virility. And that’s the whole story of the connection.

One reason for the confusion may be that swearing on the testicles is recorded in the Bible. The practice is mentioned in the Old Testament, though the King James’ version bowdlerised the reference in Genesis to “grasping the thigh”. But there seems to be no evidence that the Romans — a long way away and in another era — used a similar method. In any case, the Biblical reference implies that the person is swearing on the testicles of the king, not on their own.

Incidentally, testis sometimes appeared in the form testiculus, a diminutive form; this was converted into English at the end of the fourteenth century first as testicule and then as testicle. The Latin testis, with its plural testes, has continued in medical use to the present day.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 18 Dec. 1999
Last updated 8 Jan. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 8 January 2000.