Have you ever thought you were being all smart about something, only to find out you were actually being pretty ignorant after all? Here are a couple of illustrations (both based on my love of words) where this has happened to me.
I remember sitting in an elders’ quorum lesson at BYU (roughly 25 years ago). The lesson was on the atonement, and, predictably, the teacher wrote at-one-ment on the board. I had just started to study ancient languages, and I raised my hand and pointed out that words just aren’t formed that way. “Atonement” was obviously some sort of Greek or Latin five-dollar theological technical term, and this way of viewing it clearly obscured the real meaning of the word. (Perhaps that I did not myself know the real meaning of the word should have been my first clue that maybe I didn’t know what I was talking about.)
Someone else in the class challenged my brilliant comment, and opined that breaking the word up that way does indeed suggest an approximation of the word’s meaning. So I did some research on the matter. Imagine my embarrassment when I learned that I was quite mistaken. The word derives from Middle English atonen, from the prepositional phrase at on, which does indeed mean “at one.” The word is pure English! D’oh! Here I thought I was being so brilliant, and I had totally muffed it.
A second example: for years I’ve occasionally gotten a private smile from thinking how scandalized people would be during testimony meeting if they knew that words such as testify and testimony derive from the testes.
I long thought that testimony and related words were derived from Latin testis “testicle,” which came from the ancient practice of swearing by that which is most sacred to a man, his power of conceiving life. (Cf. Genesis, where Abraham makes Eliezer swear to him by putting his hand on his thigh, either because it is close to his genitalia, or thigh standing as a euphemism for the genitalia themselves [note, the JST in a further euphemizing change emended thigh to hand, sort of a cultural translation to a more modern shaking of hands concept].)
It is true that this is a popular etymology (I certainly didn’t make it up). But a few years ago I learned that most linguists reject this etymology of this group of English words. Words like testify and testes are still related, but in a more complicated way than I had thought.
The Latin word testis “witness” derives from Indo-European roots tre– “three” and sta– “to stand,” because a witness was a “third person standing by” in litigation (the plaintiff and defendant being the first two). So testis means “witness,” testimonium means “evidence,” testificare means “to bear witness,” testari means “to be a witness,” and testament means “covenant.”
Now, it is true that testis also came to bear the meaning “testicle.” Our English word derives from the Latin diminutive form testiculus, a development that can be traced to about the 14th century. How did that come about?
Well, a word for “witness” in Greek was parastates, lit. “one who stands alongside.” As it so happens, when used in the dual number (many languages in addition to a singular and a plural number have a dual, usually used for things that normally come in pairs, like hands and feet) that word also meant “testicles,” apparently from the sense of two glands standing alongside each other. It appears that both senses of the word (the original sense of “witness” and the developed sense of “testicles”) were represented in Latin by the same word, testis.
So, while our “testimony” meeting is indeed related to the word testes, it is in a far less direct way than I once had supposed.
These and other similar experiences explain why I personally am an advocate of intellectual and scholarly humility. I am painfully aware of just how wrong I can be, and taking too premature and too dogmatic a stance on some topic has the very real potential of coming back to bite me in the tuckus.