by Larry Myer, Μ.Α.
Students of Latin are often struck by the fact that the same Latin word testis meant both a “witness” and a “testicle.” In fact, ancient Roman writers, like Plautus, sometimes played with this double meaning. Surprisingly, no scholar had satisfactorily accounted for the origin of this puzzling ambiguity until 1998, when the Princeton Classicist Joshua Katz published his article “Testimonia Ritus Italici: Male Genitalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology.
According to Katz (and others before him) the original Indo-European form of testis was trito-sth2-i meaning “a third person standing,” i.e. a third person standing by in order to witness some event (sth2, the second part of the IE form, is related to the Latin word sto, stare to stand). So testis originally meant a “witness.” But how did it come to mean “testicle” as well? In order to answer this question, Katz begins by citing Near Eastern examples of men holding someone’s genitals while they swear an oath. In one famous instance from the Hebrew Bible, Jacob instructs his son Joseph,
If now I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh, and promise to deal loyally and truly with me. (Genesis 47.29, my italics)
Katz interprets this gesture as a symbolic way for the oath-taker to invoke destruction on his progeny should he violate his promise. So the Hebrews had a practice of holding someone’s genitals while making one kind of “solemn declaration,” in this case while swearing an oath. Is it possible that the early Romans had a similar practice, viz. holding their own or someone else’s genitals while making another kind of “solemn declaration”—to tell the truth before a court of law as a witness? Suddenly, the connection between the two meanings of testis seems much less strange.
However, it may sound like a stretch to use a Near Eastern cultural practice to explain a Latin etymology. Katz bolsters his argument by citing evidence closer to home. He quotes a passage from the Iguvine Tables, a document written in an ancient Italic language called Umbrian (a sister language of Latin). This passage describes the sacrifice of a bull-calf to Jupiter. In order to dedicate the victim to Jupiter, the sacrificer should “hold urfeta in his hand,” while saying “Jupiter Sancius, to thee I dedicate this votive bull-calf.” The Umbrian word urfeta is etymologically related to the Latin word orbis, which usually means a disk. Katz argues that the original meaning of the Latin orbis and the Umbrian urfeta was not a disk, but a three-dimensional disk, in other words a ball, and that this passage describes a gesture similar to the one in the quotation from Genesis: instead of holding the genitals of his father, the sacrificer should hold either his own genitals or the genitals of the sacrificial animal. Together the Umbrian text and the dual meaning of the Latin word testis provide evidence for the existence of an Italic rite in which the participant held his own testicles or those of a sacrificial animal while making some kind of “solemn pronouncement” (whether intoning a sacrificial formula or offering testimony in a court of law).
To further strengthen his interpretation of urfeta in the Umbrian text, Katz proposes an etymological connection between Latin orbis, Umbrian urfeta, and the Greek word for testicle ὄρχις. However, it should be noted that this connection is not mentioned in the most recent Greek and Latin etymological dictionaries (by Robert Beekes and Michiel de Vaan, respectively).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Larry Myer has an M.A. in Classical Philology from Harvard and is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) at Harvard. He also has a B.A. in Classics from Princeton. He has taught courses in “Greek Historians”, “Attic Prose”, “History of Greek Literature II”, and all levels of Latin and Ancient Greek. Magister Myer is a former teacher and tutor for the Carmenta Online Latin School.