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30729.  Fri Nov 11, 2005 11:12 pm Reply with quote

In post 30695 on the Neanderthal Man thread, Ribbo states:

Which is probably why the word "testify" came about, the Roman courthouse practice of swearing the truth on your testicles. You daren't lie and risk losing your balls! :-)

I've seen this often before and never questioned it, because the word for witness and testicle in Latin are both testis. However, that is not, as it turns out, the reason why the word has two separate meanings.

The excellent WorldWideWords has this to say:

[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.

Last edited by JumpingJack on Sat Nov 12, 2005 5:46 am; edited 1 time in total

30756.  Sat Nov 12, 2005 5:45 am Reply with quote

That seems pretty clear. I should say, though, that I had never heard of the 'swearing on the testicles' myth until Ribbo posted it.

30758.  Sat Nov 12, 2005 5:50 am Reply with quote

Hadn't you?

Actually, I suppose I thought it was pretty neat when I first came across it, so it must be fairly new to me too.


I'm changing the titles of my GI threads in this forum to one word titles so that it's clearer and they will go into alphabetical order when you click the button.

Since it's a General Ignorance Forum, there's no need to name each thread so...


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