Students of Latin are often struck by the fact that the same Latin word testis meant both a “witness” and a “testicle.” Plautus, a famous Roman playwright of the first century BC, was aware that words could have double meanings. In fact, he played with this theme in one of his plays called Curculio to get laughs from the audience.
Was it just coincidence or did Plautus know something we don’t? Some people say there is no way he would’ve been able to think about these things because they were too taboo back then and so scholars believe Katz can fill us in better on what’s going on here.
History of A “Witness” and a “Testicle”
In fact ancient Romans writers like Plauutus sometimes toyed with this dichotomous meaning (though never fully accounting for its origin), until scholar Joshua Katz published “Testimonia Ritus Italici: Male Genitalia, Solemn Declarations, and a New Latin Sound Law” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology.
According to Katz, the word testis can be traced back to words like “testicle” and “testicular,” which are derived from Latin texts meaning “to swear.”
Testes originally meant a body part that was shaped into an egg-like shape; however, it also came to mean as well in ancient times because of Near Eastern examples such as men holding someone’s genitals while they swore an oath. For example, Jacob instructed his son Joseph when he said
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 )https://biblehub.com/genesis/47-29.htm
What are the origins of holding one’s hand over their heart? Katz interprets this gesture as a symbolic way for an oath-taker to invoke destruction on his progeny should he violate his promise. So, in ancient Hebrew culture, they would have someone hold another person’s when making a solemn declaration. Is it possible that early Romans had something similar where people held each other’s genitals while swearing before court? The connection between testis and truth seems less strange now.
Conclusion about a “Witness” and a “Testicle” word history
However, it may sound like a stretch to use an ancient Near Eastern culture’s practices and rituals as the basis for explaining the meaning of Latin etymological roots. Katz bolsters his argument by citing evidence closer to home: passages from Iguvine Tables, written in Umbrian (a sister language of Latin) describe how sacrificing cattle is part of dedicating them “to Jupiter Sanctus.” He quotes one passage that states: “In order to dedicate a victim to Jupiter…hold urfeta in his hand while saying ‘Jupiter Sanctus.’ The sacrificial bull-calf should be offered with prayers and incense.”
” 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).
Scholars have long debated the translation for ‘Orbis’ in ancient texts. Katz proposes a connection between Latin orbis, Umbrian urfeta and Greek word ὄρχις but this is not mentioned in recent etymological dictionaries by Beekes or de Vaan.