From the language police blotter: testaments and testimonies

“Testimony” is evidence given by a witness.
A “testament” is a compact.

Google shows 4.1 million hits for “is a testament to.” That’s 4.1 million errors.

For example, Tom Edsall today, in the course of a very cheerful post about the collapse of the GOP:

The Pew survey is a testament to the miscalculations of the Bush administration and of the Republican leadership in Congress.

No. The survey is testimony to the miscalculations. Testimony is the evidence given by a witness, and by extension any sort of evidence.

A testament is a covenant or compact.

Since in Christian theology the Hebrew Scriptures (the Tanakh) are held to record one covenant between God and humankind, while the Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation record a subsequent covenant,* the two sections of the Christian Bible are called the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The two words have the same root: testis, meaning “witness.” A written pact documents an agreement; in effect, the text stands as a witness. But not every act of testimony records a covenant.

Now, Mr. Edsall, I’m going to let you off with a warning this time, but if it happens again I’m going to have to write you a ticket. Okay?

*Footnote See, for example, Jeremiah 31:31:

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.

Update A reader points out that the first use listed in the OED is as “last will and testament.” A will is neither what a witness says nor a compact, so I don’t think that helps decide between “testament” and “testimony” when we want a word to mean that phenomenon X is evidence of underlying reality Y.

The same reader points out that Google has many more hits for “testament to” than for “testimony to.” So on purely descriptivist grounds my position can’t stand. But I’m not a pure descriptivist.

We have two words, “testament” and “testimony.” One of them refers to a compact, the other to evidence given by a witness. Now, we have to decide which to use in the metaphorical construction that means “X demonstrates Y.” It seems to me that the extension from “evidence” is more natural than the extension from “compact.” So using “testimony” helps keeps the two underlying meaings distinct, while using “testament” ambiguates.

The reader replies:

1) I don’t think word meanings are as rational as you would like. If I were designing meanings I might go your way. There are examples of usages that clearly had much different meanings in olden times but have flipped because they sounded like something else. (I can’t think of an example right now). Possibly this is an example of the same phenomenon in the making, but looking at google it’s pretty far gone. At least it’s not like “inflammable” which many people use to mean non-inflammable, leading to the neologism “flammable” as a safety matter.

2) I think there are really at least three denotations here — compact, verbal evidence, and something like written evidence of an intention (possibly originally written evidence of a compact), and they have overlapping penumbras of less strict meanings.

3) I think there is a difference between testament and testimony which favors “testament” in this usage — testimony is just an account, and in our society the word is primarily encountered in the legal rather than the religious context. In this context, the possibility that testimony may be false is commonly understood. By contrast, as either a record of an intention or a record of a covenant, a testament can be forged but can’t properly be false.

This aspect of truth (or Truth) is reinforced by the most common usage of the word testament — as names for parts of the scriptures that are holy to Christians (I don’t think Jews as Jews can really call their bible the “old testament.” Most people probably hear “new testament” not as the “record of the new covenant,” but as some thing close to the purported “word of god.” So saying something is a testament to something is a much stronger implicit claim than saying it is testimony to (or of) something. It’s not just a piece of evidence in the legal sense, it’s a piece of almost irrefutable evidence.

I have to say I find this is convincing. And yes, meanings do switch, for example “specious,” which meant from meaning “convincing” to meaning “apparently convincing but false,” or “nubile,” which has gone from meaning “of marriageable age” to “sexy and available.”

And no, Jews aren’t supposed to say “Old Testament” (the official term is Tanakh, an acronym of Torah (the first five books), Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketubim (“writings,” or “scrolls”). We’re not supposed to say A.D. or B.C., either. But in practice the general-use terms do get used.

Second update A reader writes:

A will most certainly IS a compact — between the testator and the State. Just because it isn’t negotiated between and signed by both parties does not make it any less of a contract: It just changes the rules for how it must be done and what it can do.

Third update An expert on New Testament Greek weighs in.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: