Testimony vs. Testimonial

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between testimony and testimonial? The former word refers to formal presentation of facts, while the latter, while denoting the same meaning, has a more qualitative connotation in which opinion (and perhaps deception) is expressed as well.

Testimony means “the statement of a witness” and is used generally used only in a legal sense; originally, it also referred to evidence, but that sense is obsolete. Testimonial, as an adjective, means “of or pertaining to testimony,” but as a noun it means “a statement of one’s character or qualifications.”

This sense has been extended to refer to a common type of advertising in which a person testifies to the efficacy or quality of a product, as well as to a gift symbolizing appreciation. And just as testimony may be faulty or may involve perjury, testimonials are not necessarily reliable or deserved.

Testify, meanwhile, is a verb meaning “to bear witness.” A related word is testament, from the Latin word testamentum, meaning “a will” or “publication of a will”; it derives ultimately from testis, meaning “witness.”

Other words with the syllable -test include the verbs attest (“affirm” or “prove”), contest (“dispute” or “oppose,” originally in the sense of witnessing against someone, but now also meaning “compete”), detest (with the original sense of “denounce” but now generally meaning “abhor, dislike intensely”), and protest (originally, “declare or state formally or solemnly” but now meaning “complain” or “speak out against”); noun forms of contest and protest and nouns extending from attest and detest (attestation and detestation); and adjectival forms such as detestable.

The syllable -test in these words is related to Indo-European root word for “three”; the connection is that a third person, ostensibly neutral, is the ideal witness for providing testimony. Also, curiously enough, the word test, as a synonym for exam or trial, probably has no connection to the Latin syllable; it comes from the unrelated Latin word testum, meaning “earthen pot,” the earliest type of vessel used for assaying precious minerals. (This term is related to texere, meaning “to weave,” from which we get the word textile.)

Testicle (plural testicles, medical terms testis and testes), meanwhile, is associated with the sense of witnessing, perhaps in that the male reproductive organ bears witness to virility; one scholar, however, does make a connection between testis, the Latin origin of testicle, and testum, the Latin word for a pot.

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5 Responses to “Testimony vs. Testimonial”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I have to admit that I was somewhat surprised by the author’s speculation regarding the use of “testicle” in conjunction with bearing witness. The reference is Biblical. Here is the gist of it:

    In Genesis 24:2–9 Abraham has his servant Eliezer put his hand under the Patriarch’s thigh to swear “by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth” that the servant will not arrange a marriage for Abraham’s son Isaac with a Canaanite woman.

    Similarly, in Genesis 47:29–31 the dying Patriarch Jacob has his son Joseph swear to him that he will bury Jacob not in Egypt, but alongside Jacob’s own parents in the Cave of Machpelah; and the oath-taking ritual again calls for putting a hand under the Patriarch’s thigh.

    Talmudic tradition takes these verses to indicate that the oath was sworn while the circumcised membrum of the Patriarch was held in hand, and derives from this interpretation the rule that all Jewish oaths must be sworn while some ritual object is held in hand.

    “Putting one’s hand under the thigh” is a euphemism for offering the family jewels as collateral in support of whatever oath the person swears. I suspect that this ritual might play a part in early jurisprudence’s not permitting women to swear oaths in court; not that women weren’t deemed fundamentally truthful, but they had nothing, so to speak, to put up as collateral.

  • Dale A. Wood

    It is interesting how many of our expressions in Modern English can be traced back to the Old Testament, and hence the Talmud, and especially as it was translated into the English of the early 1600s – under the rule of King James I, King of England 1603-25, who was also James VI of Scotland 1567-1625, since he was crowned while he was just an infant.

    Whether you are religious or not, it is correct to pay attention to the influence of religious writings on the English language.

    It is also true that during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, William Shakespeare brought MANY words into written English. Some writers credit Shakespeare with creating the words, but I doubt that – his audiences would not have understood them. I think that Shakespeare drew words from slang English and brought them into literary English. We still have most of them now.
    D.A.W.

  • thebluebird11

    @Matt: Unfortunately, my rabbi is out of town this week, so I can’t get an answer from him today, but I’m kind of scratching my head about your assertion regarding Jews and oaths and holding ritual objects. I don’t know if that was something they did in Talmudic times, but I have not heard of anything like that in current times. Jews are generally forbidden, or at least discouraged, from swearing to much of anything, and as far as holding any object while doing so…again, I am in the dark about that. I will have to get back to you! Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that the whole hand-on-thigh thing was a euphemism for the actual location of the hand, although it seems so…like ewwww, was that really necessary?! I’d be like, “Honey, really? In front of all these people? I trust you; let’s skip that part of the ceremony!”

  • Daniel

    @Matt, I believe there are many things that corroborate the connection, and not only biblical references.

    For instance, if I am not wrong until the 16th century or so the ritual of coronation of a new pope included a part where they groped the pope to make sure he had testicles and therefore was a man. This ritual was introduced after a woman managed to get herself elected as “Pope John” in the 9th century.

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Daniel, since I’m Catholic, your reference to the Cardinals verifying that they haven’t yet again been duped by a woman is, to the best of my knowledge, true; however, the investigative technique is allegedly subtler than tawdry groping. It seems that there’s a special chair on which the prospective Pope sits. There’s a hole in the seat. The papal candidate supposedly situates himself (not herself, God forfend!) on the chair so that the family jewels are exposed to someone beneath the chair (imagine a stage with a trapdoor of sorts), the candidate’s robes covering the area beneath the chair on all sides. A hand reaches from beneath, prods and probes, and, assuming things are as they are hoped to be, the investigator confirms the candidate’s masculinity. I imagine that the practice was abandoned some time ago, but who knows?

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