Etymonline gives the etymology of testify as

...from testis "a witness".. + root of facere "to make"... Biblical sense of "openly profess one's faith and devotion" is attested from 1520s. Related: Testified; testifying; testification. (also, testament, intestate, etc.)

In Biblical times, to swear a most sacred oath, the swearer made his oath by holding on to the oath-giver's genitals.

Abraham... said to the senior servant in his household...Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the Lord... that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites... So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore... (Gen. 24)


When the time drew near for Israel (Jacob) to die, he called... Joseph and said to him, “...put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will... not bury me in Egypt..." Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff. (Gen. 47)

Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (aka Rashi) explains in his commentary:

Since one (a Jew) who swears must take with his hand an article related to a mitzvah... and circumcision was his [Abraham's] first mitzvah, and he had fulfilled it with pain, [Abraham's circumcised penis] was dear to him; so he took it. (bracketed expansions mine)

Others interpret (reason?) that this oath was sworn by holding the oath-giver's testicles.

The Latin word for "witness, one who attests" is testis, as well as testicles (from Latin testiculus, diminutive of testis). The Greek for spermaria is similarly derived.

So, how did testify, testimony, testament, protest, detest, contest, even Old and New Testament diverge so wildly from it's origins, to swear while holding someone's penis or testicles? Why don't we swear by our balls, soft bits, tallywags, twiddle-diddles, goolies, trinkets, bollocks, nuts, or cojones?

Was there ever a time when such little things didn't make such big promises?

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    "Un testo sacro" is not a holy ball :) but a holy text, so to testify, I'd imagine would be closer linked to the expression of something written and being sacred. Still, I liked the question and the nuns who ran the school never taught us that passage concerning Abraham's tackle.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 20, 2014 at 8:07
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    @Mari-LouA There are a few problems with this question, with the biggest one probably being the assumption that testify comes from testicle rather than the other way around (as you and David noted in your answers, and I suspected in my comment above). Much of the question unravels if you do away with the assumption that Latin etymology was so strongly influenced by a very specifically Jewish practice. Mar 22, 2014 at 12:41
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    This isn't about the English Language. The question title is about social behavior and most of the question focuses on non-English texts that influence current social behavior.
    – MrHen
    Mar 22, 2014 at 14:55
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    @BraddSzonye and Mr.Hen My initial reaction was the same, but then I said ... Some questions are far more interesting than their being strictly on or off-topic. So, I chose to answer rather than a close vote.
    – David M
    Mar 22, 2014 at 21:13
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    In Trevanian's "Shibumi," the protagonist's Basque friend uses the following formula: "I swear by the four balls of Jesus, Mary and Joseph." [Quotational exactitude not guaranteed.] Jun 16, 2014 at 3:43

6 Answers 6


Testo an Italian word derives from the Latin term, textum (text), which in turn originated from the verb texĕre, which means to weave.

Treccani, the Italian online dictionary and encyclopedia par excellence says:

testo² s. m. [dal lat. textum -i o textus -us, rispettivam. part. pass. neutro e der. di texĕre "tessere"]. [...] 2. (estens., bibl.) [edizione, spec. se antica e autorevole: t. classici; i t. sacri] ≈ libro, opera, scritto, volume.

Roughly translated, the word testo is used when referring to the classics i.e. classic literature, and sacred works or volumes.

The verb, testify, (In Italian testimoniare) derives from the noun, testimony, its Latin form testimonium which the OP rightly affirmed derives from testis and its plural form teste.

The testicle (from Latin testiculus, diminutive of testis, meaning "witness" of virility, plural testes)

From Dictionary.com

(pl. testes), 1704, from L. testis "testicle," usually regarded as a special application of testis "witness" (see testament), presumably because it "bears witness" to virility (cf. Gk. parastates, lit. "one that stands by;" and Fr. slang témoins, lit. "witnesses").

Looking at the word teste, which means also witness in Italian, according to Treccani it derived originally from the Latin term, tristis (sad, sorrowful, disagreeable or foul smelling) which later evolved into terstis, meaning third party.

So far I haven't find any solid evidence that suggests testament, testimony, testify, are directly related to testes/testicles. I'm more inclined to believe that the root word is textum meaning text or teste (witness), therefore the tradition of swearing an oath by placing one's hand on the Bible rather than on one's testicles, makes sense. If this needs reminding, Christians are not required to be circumcised, so there is no guarantee the judge would be circumcised. See David M's answer as to why it is relevant.

One more thing to consider, would women really have been asked to place their hands on the judge's genitals before a court of law? Back when?


From the Wikipedia article entitled Sexuality in Ancient Rome

The apparent connection between Latin testes, "testicles," and testis, plural testes, "witness" (the origin of English "testify" and "testimony")[185] may lie in archaic ritual. Some ancient Mediterranean cultures swore binding oaths upon the male genitalia, symbolizing that "the bearing of false witness brings a curse upon not only oneself, but one's house and future line."[186] Latin writers make frequent puns and jokes based on the two meanings of testis:[187] it took balls to become a legally functioning male citizen. The English word "testicle" derives from the diminutive testiculum.

link 186 informs

Joshua T. Katz, "Testimonia Ritus Italicus: Male Genitalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 98 (1998) 183–217 (quotation from p. 193), pointing to the oaths in the Book of Genesis, chapters 24 and 47; the testicles of ritually slaughtered animals used to affirm testimony in Athenian murder trials, as at Demosthenes, Contra Aristocratem 23.67f.; Rhetorica ad Herennium 3.33, where ram's testicles are a mnemonic device in a courtroom exercise. Katz proposes that the Umbrian hapax urfeta means "testicles" and is related to Latin orbis (as "balls"); thus the Iguvine Tables also make a connection between testicles and "solemn declarations" (Katz, p. 191).

I had to look up hapax because I don't think I have ever come across this word before. A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text.

A Slate article, Where Did We Get Our Oath? debunks the urban legend, as it claims, of ancient Romans who vowed to tell the truth by grabbing hold of their testicles or as I found in one recount; of two male witnesses who would hold each other's testicles when taking an oathGames Primates Play, I'm inclined to think this version is rather fanciful and at this point we really need an expert in Ancient History.

Latin scholars have debunked this colorful claim, pointing out that testis more likely comes from the Ancient Greek for "three"—a witness being a third observer of events.

Witness (Testimonio 1/Testimone 2/Teste 3)

Until the 16th century the Italian for witness used to be testimonio but today that has been superceded by testimone and teste. A brief history of the word, testimonianza, written in Italian, is provided by Treccani. Testimonianza in English is deposition (Law) Sworn testimony recorded for use in court at a later date.

In his book, AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, Roger Hallas provides this clear explanation.

enter image description here

Consequently, it appears that the word, testify, and all its derivatives come from the Latin term, terstis (third party or person) which Treccani also confirms.

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    +1 - good research! lol, Women rarely if ever take oaths in the OT. I think this particular oath was limited to twice in the OT. I will do some additional research to see if I can pin down testes to testiment. Mar 20, 2014 at 11:36
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    I also doubt whether a woman's testimony was deemed valid in any case, so where she placed her hands while giving it would not be very relevant... @Susan: I understand what you mean, but please show some consideration when using language like pinning down testes :( Men can be very empathic about those things.
    – oerkelens
    Mar 20, 2014 at 12:47
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    @Cerberus, I suppose they could be related—but if so, it would obviously be in the other direction, ‘third’ being the basic meaning and ‘trist’ the secondary. Doesn't seem a particularly compelling link semantically, though, just phonetically plausible. Like you, I highly doubt Treccani has that one right. (I admit I've never heard of Treccani’s dictionary before, so I do not know if it is in general a decent work or not.) Mar 27, 2014 at 8:11
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    @Mari-Lou, Umbrian and Oscian are not dialects at the point in time Katz is talking about—they are the two other big Italic languages apart from Latin that have attestations from back then. Neither is anywhere as well known as Latin is. Mar 27, 2014 at 17:18
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    @medica wow... I wasn't expecting that, especially after David's edits which did improve his answer notably. Thank you, I suspect there will be a few EL&U users who'll disagree, and a few who think I don't belong here. They're probably right.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 28, 2014 at 17:45

I think this is a chicken and the egg argument.

The notion that testimony springs forth from the testicles and/or their use as an agent of swearing truth appears spurious. And, in fact, conceptually the etymology seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

The concept of testicles from the latin testis seems to come from the gonads being a witness to male virility.

In addition to the etymonline entry above claiming it groundless, there are multiple online debunks of the practice of swearing on one's testicles being the origin of testify and related words. Source; Source; Source; Source - There is a fair sampling of what I've found. Most of the "sources" linking the origin to the dubious Roman practice do not provide any etymologic sources.

So, it would appear that the shared root of testis, testimony, testify, etc. is based upon the latin meaning to bear witness, and not to swear upon one's testicles.

For us Jews, circumcision represents an act which fulfills the covenant with God that was made by Abraham.

God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

There is generally no mention of the testicles in that act. The testicles have no special meaning in Judaism beyond the obvious as a means of reproduction. As such, I would disagree with some of the above sources claiming that the practice of placing one's hands under the thighs being a bowdlerization of hands on the testicles to be unlikely.

Rather, the placing of the hands over the penis according to some of the rabbinic literature is a reference to this being Abraham's most sacred feature (his penis being the living symbol of his covenant with God due to its circumcision). Or, it might just be literal that the master sits on the hands of the supplicant. Source.

Another in depth discussion of this concept can be found here.:

A popular claim also alleges that Greeks and Romans would touch their own testicles while swearing, however there is no evidence in support. The "testicle" theory argues that the testicles were used for oaths because they represented virility, power, and represented the man’s future generations, and the source of life. If so, perhaps that is the true "ancient Roman salute" (grasping one's own testicles), as the stiff-armed salute is definitely NOT an "ancient Roman salute."

The new theory asks whether the “inner thigh” posture (the "yarek oath" or "yarek prayer" or "yarek pledge") acknowledged the man’s circumcision. In Judaism the circumcision is the male’s covenant with God and is also called the “Covenant of Abraham,” because it began with the Patriarch Abraham. Two references to the “inner thigh” oath (above) refer to Abraham, whose circumcision would have been new and revered. Abraham would have circumcised his slaves, who later performed “inner thigh” oaths to Abraham.

It stands to reason that others who made similar covenant with God might consider their genitals to be sacred as well. And, they would be likely to consider it a portable symbol of their connection with God. (Particularly before the Gutenberg Bible brought the sacred word of God to the common man in a much less intimate form.)

  • @DavidM You might want to note in your answer that the etymonline entry for testis refutes a folk etymology very similar to the one in the question. Mar 22, 2014 at 20:58
  • @BraddSzonye That is the link highlighted, but I will make it clearer.
    – David M
    Mar 22, 2014 at 20:59
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    @medica I've added a few more sources. But, logically you have: two dangly bits without religious significance and a circumcised penis which is a symbol of the covenant with God. Which one would you swear an oath on? I'm not saying bowdlerized is wrong, I'm saying they bowdlerized the wrong thing!
    – David M
    Mar 27, 2014 at 6:28
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    Depending on who you ask, that's either masturbation, coitus interruptus, rejection of levirate marriage, or simple disobedience. Assuming that Onan is a real person and not an allegory for the extinction of a clan. But you're correct at least in noting that seed is important to a lot of people. Still, rage weight of evidence seems to point toward “Latin speaking folk didn't actually do this.” Mar 27, 2014 at 6:46
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    @medica I've derived an inordinate amount of enjoyment from this question! Fascinating!
    – David M
    Mar 28, 2014 at 14:08

In response to the initial question, not the etymology: The original post notes that the reason for the practice was incidental and unique to Abraham, and the underlying principle is more generic.

Since one (a Jew) who swears must take with his hand an article related to a mitzvah

(In fact, I can't think of other options he may have had. There were no other articles related to G-d's commandments, as the remainder of object-related commandments were not given until hundreds of years later.)

The intent is to hold a sacred object to associate the oath with the oath-taker's inviolable beliefs, which is why the Bible is used.

  • Can you comment as to testicles vs penis vs hands under thighs? You seem up on your Midrash. (More so than me.)
    – David M
    Mar 27, 2014 at 16:03
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    Well, the placement is literally under the thigh, but it is clearly a euphemism. On the question of precise placement of the hands (if it were considered important to the essentially symbolic gesture) it seems equally clear that as the Mitzvah is associated with the foreskin, the testicles don't come into it.
    – GetzelR
    Mar 27, 2014 at 16:13
  • @medica You asked for more than my word that it had nothing to do with testicles... I figured we'd ask a Yeshiva booker... I just wanted clarity that the Milah is in fact not the testicles, because I couldn't prove it to you personally.
    – David M
    Mar 27, 2014 at 16:27

It's not actually true that ancient Romans swore on their testicles - someone testifying in court would deposit a sum of money, and if the judge or judges concluded that he told the truth, he received his deposit back. If he lied, the money was forfeit to the state. The oaths sworn by soldiers, on the other hand, were for loyalty to the consuls or to the emperor and their very lives could be forfeit if it were deemed broken. These oaths, called sacramenta as they were sacred rites, were abhorred by early Christians, possibly for a number of reasons:

  1. The only sacraments (not coincidentally, also sacramenta) that a Christian may take are those prescribed by the Church.
  2. As the oath invoked a pagan deity or demanded unconditional obedience to someone other than Christ, it was inappropriate for Christians.
  3. Matthew 5:34-5 enjoins: "But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God's throne, nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King"; many early Christians (and still some today) interpreted this to forbid oaths of any kind.

The practice of holding your hand on the Bible seems to have originated as kissing the Bible, perhaps as a way to prove the testifier is Christian (and therefore that his testimony is trustworthy), or perhaps to root out witches or heathens.

Regardless, the oldest gesture associated with oath swearing still in wide use today is actually the raised right hand. Psalm 144:8 speaks of "Whose mouth speaks lying words, And whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood." That means it's been passed down at least from the time of ancient Israel to the present day, over 3000 years.

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    relevant sources (a commentary, perhaps) to support your interpretation would br most welcome, especially of your last statement. The right hand of falsehood could be many things. Mar 25, 2014 at 0:57
  • The use of a raised and/or right hand as a sign of oath-swearing is common in the Torah/Old Testament, performed by among others Abraham (raised in Gen 14:22) and God (raised in Ex 6:8 and right in Isaiah 62:8) - not that God necessarily has hands, but merely that by or with a raised/right hand is the way in which oaths are made. Right-handed oath-swearing is also a motif in pagan Greek literature ("the all-powerful right-handed oath" in Euripides) and in descriptions of Egyptian legal practice. Mar 27, 2014 at 13:28

Your own testicles are sacred to you; the judges testicles are not sacred to you. You would therefore place your hand over your own testicles, rather than somebody elses.

It is your own nuts that are on the chopping block. You might not care, if they were somebody elses.

I believe that the inference is that one's testicles could be removed, if one breaks the oath. I swear by these! They will be forfeit, if I break my oath. That is how solemn I am. (One could be quite insincere and even jesting, if one said, "Should I be telling a lie, you may remove the judges testicles.")

In the same way, one's immortal soul was to be forfeit, when one put one's hand on the Holy Bible.

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    You need back up for this one. A reference, a link, anything! But I find myself strongly agreeing with you in your first paragraph.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 27, 2014 at 11:45
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    +1 - this speaks sense. I think Biblically, they wouldn't suffer loss of the testicles (that was a big deal) but rather a loss of seed - their offspring. That was an even bigger deal. Mar 27, 2014 at 13:34

Because the Genitals were the place of Circumcision - and Circumcision was their Covenant with God. So they were not making an Oath on the Genitals at all, but on the Sign of the "Covenant" that was on their Genitals. Most people don't understand this.

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    Hi and welcome to ELU. This answer is covered well in the above answers., in effect making this answer redundant. It's always a good idea to read the answers given to see if you're adding anything new. Thanks. ') Jan 11, 2015 at 3:18

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