Too Smart for My Own Britches Sometimes

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.


  1. Well, it’s good to find out before someone comes along and kicks you in the “witnesses”! :-)

    Thanks for the insights!


  2. That’s funny. I have done the same thing, with those same two words.

    . . .bite me in the tuckus.

    I hope I’m not being too smart for my britches if I point out that the word you are probably looking for it “tuchis”.

    Thus sayeth Roget’s.

  3. a random John says:

    The at-one-ment had always rang false for me as well, I’m happy to learn that I was wrong, though I do wish that more derivation would be presented whenever this example is given.

    Another issue with this, since it often seems to comes up in conference talks, is that since the derivation is pure English it probably doesn’t work well in any other language. I know that the Portuguese word for atonement shares its origins with the English word expiate and not at-one-ment. How do such talks translate in our world-wide

  4. Me, too.

    Thankfully, both times were in the bloggernacle, and I was gently corrected.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s funny, Mark IV. I wasn’t sure how to spell it, guessed “tuckus,” googled that spelling, and got 22,000 hits. So I figured that had to be right.

    But I just now tried “tuchis,” and got 29,000 hits. So my guess is that “tuchis” is the more conventional orthographic representation of this Yiddish word, and that “tuckus” (and others) are spelling variants that arose based on people like me trying to use the word based solely on its sound to their ears.

  6. TrailerTrash says:

    I am not sure that I follow the argument about testis. You’ve shown that in both Latin and Greek the words testis and parastates mean both witness and testicle. How exactly does this make it “more complicated”? It seems that a shared association b/t these two concepts in two indo-european languages strengthens the etymology, rather than diminishes it.

  7. We’d probably all be smarter if tried to avoid committing the Etymological Fallacy.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    TrailerTrash (no. 6), I originally thought that English *test-* words having to do with bearing witness were directly derived from Latin *testis* “testicle,” in a parent-child type relationship. But that is not the case; such words always had bearing-witness type meanings. The testicle meaning was a side development not in the direct linguistic genealogical line. So the relationship is not analogous to parent-child; more like second cousin or something like that.

    Ed (no. 7), I find etymologies fascinating, but I certainly agree with you that in determining meaning in an actual text what is important is usage and context, not etymology.

  9. Jonathan Green says:

    But I think that a little skepticism and a little amusement are justified in the first and second case, respectively.

    “Popular word histories that focus on how a word is spelled but overlook how it sounds” is almost a definition of folk etymology, and being suspiciou is a high-percentage shot. It pays to consult a good etymological dictionary before piping up in Elder’s Quorum, but it makes sense not to take the derivation at face value until you do.

    As for “testis,” the interesting part of the question is why one should accept the postulated root of *tristis. I was a bit curious about it, but a little poking around reveals a parallel Umbrian formation and some relevant Latin phonetic laws.

  10. I agree with arJ about the at-one-ment hitting a false note. I don’t agree, however, that “had rang” is pure English.

    I would I had wrang his neck before that escaped his lips.

  11. random john,

    I usually suggested that in English we didn’t say “expiate” but rather went with “uma palavra que significa unificação entre duas partes.” I guess there’s no direct translation for the at-one-ment thing.

    One thing that chapped me though was when FARMS authors quit using the word “atonement” and wrote it “at-one-ment” all the time. Gospel hobby, I guess.

  12. Funny how many of us end out thinking the same things. Count me amoung those experiencing Kevin’s same smarty pantsdom. That said, at-one-ment just smacks of gooffiness.

    David J., I use “expiate” and “expiation” rather frequently. Is there something that I should be aware of?

  13. nothing’s more “gooffy” than mispelling “goofiness”, J. Throw stones cautiously.

    J., expiate (you’re probably using “sacrifice expiatoire”, frenchie) is more focused on the scapegoat function of the atonement. It’s a Latin term that’s based on the sacrificial idea, appeasing by sacrifice. It misses some of the Stephen Robinson-y connotations of atonement.

  14. a random John says:

    Mark B.,

    Good catch.

    David J,

    I was usually more concerned with making sure people knew I was talking about expiate and not espionage (and that I wasn’t from the CIA) than tryig to explain to people that there is a word in English that doesn’t exist in Portuguese that has a word origin that gives insight into what Christ did. Especially when at the time I thought that the word origin story was simply a coincidence.

  15. nothing’s more “gooffy” than mispelling “goofiness”,

    Hey, did somebody just misspell “mispelling”?

    I didn’t know being too smart for one’s britches could be so fun.

  16. J, I concur with Anon. I see it in my studies among Jewish scholars, not sure why (maybe the word “atonement” has Christian connections?). If I recall, BRM thinks it’s different from “atonement” in MD, but I could be wrong (gave up reading that book long ago).

    random john — yeah, I was always wont to confuse “mensagem” (message) with “massagem” (massage). The looks on people’s faces when I would say “We’d like to come in and give you and your family a massage…”

  17. Your criticisms are insufficient to disabuse me of my use of the term.

  18. This thread is giving me a giggle.

  19. Mark IV, touche! Marks I, II and III failed to notice the error.

  20. J. Watkins says:

    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].)

    Isn’t “hand” just another Hebrew euphemism for a man’s genitalia? Pardon me if that was too crude.

  21. J. Watkins says:

    Sorry, I can’t do this weblog thing for my life.

  22. J. Watkins, if I can, anybody can. :)

    I loved your first sentence, Kevin, I do it all the time. Luckily, I have a killer sense of humor and I laugh at my own stupidity. Although, you know, I got in the biggest fight with my husband because I thought he was an idiot, when Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard fought years ago.

    I thought Marvin Hagler was going to kill Sugar Ray Leonard.

    I was the idiot. We didn’t speak for three weeks and he never gloated. Never. What a guy, huh?

    Kevin, didn’t we meet in New York City, at church? I met someone named Barney. One of the things I love best about blogging is being validated in all my human-ness, good and bad, and well, embarrassing.

    I wonder what they will say in Sunday School if I advanced the theory of testimony=testes. My husband would crawl under the chair.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    It wasn’t me in NY. I’ve been there a few times on business, but never to church.

  24. I love this topic. It reminds me of a This American Life I heard where Ira Glass talks about that grey area where you have enough knowledge to pass as “knowledg-able,” yet also not enough to keep you out of trouble. His friends even coined a term for the phenomenon: Modern Jackass. (The example he uses is the kind of things people will say when asked why something like anti-oxidants, which they know is good for them, is good for them).

    My own similar Modern Jackass moment came when I was admitted against a professor’s better judgment into a graduate seminar while I was still an undergraduate. Upon reading a book by Eudora Welty, whom I knew very little about (She was southern), I made the mistake of determining she was African American based on a sepia-toned dim picture I’d seen on the dust-jacket of one of her books. Proud as can be of myself I worked out an argument for why reading the book through the lens of race in America illuminated key insights, because after all Welty was a black woman. The professor sat for a second stunned, and then burst my bubble, “Eudora Welty’s white.”
    It was beyond awful.

  25. Carl Youngblood says:

    Yep, atone is pure Anglo-Saxon all the way. I actually find it to be a kind of cool substitute for the Latin version, to expiate, because it has a connotation of presentness and familiarity that isn’t as strong in the Latin.

  26. Esposito – that’s a great story! I remember stifling giggles when one of my fellow grad students gushed to a guest speaker that his lecture was truly “enervating”.

    And along these lines (sort of), it’s always uncomfortable when people start asking substantive questions about things you have a vague familiarity with, but don’t know anything about. Like real estate law, for example. So, if you’re buying a condo, don’t ask for free legal advice from your friend who does employment law. :)

  27. Eposito,

    That reminds me of a very embarrassing conversation from my 2L year of law school about women in legal academia. The other student kept getting this quizical look, and at the time I wondered why.

    I found out later. It turns out that I had wrongly assumed (from the name) that Cass Sunstein was a woman. (Well hey – I knew a woman named Cass, before law school!)


  28. Yeah right, Kaimi, next you’re going to expect me to believe that Marty Lederman is a man.

  29. So, you found good Middle English roots for the word–but is there any truth to the story that Tyndale put together the word “atonement” for his translation of the Bible?

  30. Marilynn Masten says:

    Oh, how wonderful to find I am not alone in this world of words and meanings!

  31. Dear friends,

    I know for sure and you can check any good Latin etymology book that–
    1) Teste/Testiculum (lit. “Witness/little witness”) The origin of the word would be obvious to anyone used to write or speak Latin. The “little witnesses” stand outside witnessing but not participating…(you know when) These Romans were funny… I know. But that is the origin of the word. From “teste” (“witness, in the sense proof”) More than one “testa” (teste) assents to a fact. From the lower Lat. plural for heads comes the word for witness, then pluralized again as testi or in the more common diminutive “testicullum”.
    2) Atestare: (to assent) means “to nod”, “testa” being the word for “head”. To assent with your head, literally. From that root a number of other words come: “testamentum” (pact, accord, last will, contract)
    Romans did not swear by their genitals but by their “lares” their family gods and ancestors.
    I challenge anyone to find one serious historicla reference to the people of Latium swearing by holding their genitals (Italians today do it only when they are very angry at someone and not to swear to the truth of their statements, believe me)
    Your comment is spurious etimologically and historically. Cheers


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