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Category Archives: History
Or: The Beauty of Language
What’s in a word? One might be tempted to say “letters, my dear man”, but as with anything transmitted and given meaning by society, words have a life and a history all of their own, the product of their existence, imagining, and continual re-imagining by us humans. Indeed, the very language we use is older than any of us (perhaps even all of us combined), and it carries so many quirks and coincidences that, sometimes, one can only pause and marvel.
Take the word “test” for example. It is most familiar to us as a tool of judgement, assessment, or trial, and the noun possessing this meaning has been recorded since the 1590s. The verb form of the word has been recorded since 1748, somewhat unexpectedly, but not uncommonly; many verbs we take for granted today have in fact been “verbified” from their parent nouns. This general sense of “test” originates from its usage in the late 14th century meaning “a small vessel used in assaying precious metals”, and has its roots in the Latin “testum”, meaning “earthen pot”.
From there, we get the numerous nuances of the word in contemporary usage, each instance drawing on a different aspect of the meaning. We have “test-tube”, perhaps most closely-linked to the original; we have “test-drive”, certainly not a test in the earliest sense -how would one drive an earthen pot?- but a test in the more abstract sense; and we have “test-tube baby”, signifying the triumph of science over sterility, and interestingly enough, first appearing in 1935, while “test-drive” did not appear until 1954.
One might be tempted to link that first sense to “testify”, and it is easy to see a connection- both senses are linked with the verity of the object in question, be it metal or man. Both senses originate from the late 14th century, but come from different Latin roots. “Testify”, in the sense of “to serve as evidence of”, ultimately originates from the Latin “testificari”, to bear witness. The Latin word itself originates from “testis”, witness, and the root of “facere”, to make; in essence, to make witness.
Allow me a diversion here. The word “facere” is present in more English words than we would think at first sight. As with “testify”, most words ending in “-fy” with a creative (and not Creationist nor even Creative, for those are completely different meanings) aspect ultimately originate from “facere”. Similarly, any word with “-fication”, “-factor”, “-facient” &c. (another Latin loanword!) would have originated from the Latin. Many quotable phrases contain the word, or one of its many, many variations (Latin is notorious for having too many declensions). Perhaps one day, we will look back on this century and utter the words of Tacitus: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”, or: “Where they create a desert, they call it peace”. Perhaps, when this Universe finally ends, some super-Universal (“super-” in the sense of above and beyond) entity will find it ironic to utter: “Fiat lux”, or: “Let there be light”.
Enough of the unrelated Latin; there is time enough for it another day. There is now a second sense of “testify” having to do with religion, and “openly profess[ing] one’s faith and devotion”; this sense is attested from the 1520s, which coincides with the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, “protest” itself originates from the same root, “testis”, but with the prefix “pro-” signifying “forth, before”. One of the oldest senses of the word is “to protest one’s innocence”, which is still retained in contemporary usage. The sense of “disapproval” originates much later, from 1751, and “dissent from or rejection of prevailing mores” from 1951, in relation to the U.S. black civil rights movement. Still the oldest sense, however, is that of a “solemn declaration”, in the mid-14th century, which is the sense in which Martin Luther protested, even though the verb in that sense is attested only from the mid-15th century.
Perhaps a word closer to the four letters we started out with would show some more similarity- but alas (and to my joy!), English surprises us yet again. “Testy”, meaning “impetuous, rash”, has nothing to do at all with test-tubes or testimonies, although it might explain the need for some test-tube babies. What seems like a contemporary word, if only for its overusage, can in fact trace its history with the oldest of the lot- the first sense has been recorded since circa (another Latin loanword) 1500, and the other meaning of “easily irritated” comes some scant two decades later, in the 1520s. The history of this word is somewhat more complicated than one would imagine lay behind a simple derogatory adjective. It comes through the Middle English “testif”, “headstrong”, via the Old French “testu”, “stubborn” (or literally, “heady”), and ultimately from the Latin “testa”, “skull”. Indeed, the emotional aspect of the word is shared with “heady”, as is its history.
The most interesting word (I apologize to the ladies in advance) has, astoundingly, nothing to do with testiness, although the visual and aural similarities have no doubt contributed to the usage of the latter; indeed, “testes” comes from the same root as “testify”. It is the plural of “testis”, used in the sense of “gonad” since 1704, which makes this sense easily the youngest of all. Astute readers may recognize the root; it is, in fact, usually regarded as a special application of “testis”, presumably because it “bears witness” to virility. Other explanations include a variation of the sense of “testum”, or “pot”, bringing us full circle in the most unexpected way.
It is a testament to the power of society that a language can evolve so much over time, with little more than its current state known to the vast majority of people, who are themselves nevertheless bringing about the next evolutions. Indeed, the meaning and significance of language is contained almost solely within the minds of people who live but threescore and ten years, yet it has survived so much of Time, and come out none the worse for it.