Final exams test your mettle? Perhaps you should have just taken Rocks for Jocks. Etymologically speaking, you kind of did.

"Test." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Test.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


Take rocks, heat them up, and see what kind of good stuff you can get. This is just a test: As the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, a test originally referred to the “cupel used in treating gold or silver alloys or ore.” Chaucer, once again, gets the first citation around 1386.

A cupel is a vessel used for the process of refining precious metals. In a test, an alchemist, say, would examine metals, very carefully assaying them for the amount and purity of precious metal melted down and separated therein. Hence, we initially spoke quite literally of bringing or putting a specimen to the test.

By the 1600s, a test was already metaphorical, describing a “trial” or “proof” of a matter’s true qualities. Over the centuries, the word took on broader meanings in religion, sport, and science, but it did not take on its academic sense of assessment until 1910, according to the OED.

Testing Culture

Metallurgy is rich with history. Such technology, for instance, helped make possible the advances of the Bronze Age. Alchemy, as another example, helped launch chemistry.

But metallurgy is also rich linguistically. Take examine and assay, as we saw above. Both were used early on for the testing of metals, as you may have gathered. Assay, source of essay, is from the French and initially denoted those metallurgic tests and trials. It was likened to writing efforts in the late 1500s and even comes from the same root as exam.

Speaking of the 1500s, at that time a touchstone was used to determine the quality of the gold or silver alloys put to the test. Such a stone, often quartz, would produce a particular color when rubbed against an authentic specimen. Later, in the 1700s, if you wanted to purchase precious metals, you would look for a hallmark, named for an assay office known as Goldsmith’s Hall London, to make sure you got the genuine article. The acid test was a special method using nitric acid to assay gold.

The test metaphor has indeed become a tried-and-true part of English-language culture, yielding everything from test match to pregnancy test to test anxiety.

Jugs & Jocks

The history of test in English may be all about metal, but its deeper etymology is all about clay. Passing through French, test comes from the Latin testum, a form of testū. It meant an “earthen vessel” or “pot,” hence the cupel we saw above. The word is related to testa, a “brick,” “tile,” and “potsherd,” a shard of a pot. It also referred to the “shell (of a tortoise, crustacean, or insect)” and the “skull.”

Walter Skeat connects the words to terra, “earth,” with a sense of “dried earth,” thus earthenwares. Indeed, terra is from a Proto-Indo-European root, *ters-, meaning “dry.” Eric Partridge, however, goes in the direction of a different material culture, seeing the words rooted in textus, a “woven” thing, from a Latin verb spun from the Proto-Indo-European *teks-, to “weave.” The technology of a text message, both so derived from the root, has indeed come along way,

French took testa and made it their tête, “head,” seen in tête-à-tête. We saw how testa could mean a “pot” and “skull.” Jughead, anyone? Via “skull” French gets the broader “head.” There is analogy for this: German has Kopf for “head,” related to the word for cup.

But head” may not be the only thing made out of clay.

There is a great deal of folk etymology linking the Latin word for testis (a “witness,” source of words like testify and protest) to the Latin word for “testicles,” testes. The story goes that Roman men swore oaths on another’s testicles, but this story does not stand the test. The family jewels, it could actually turn out, may be from testa, little “pots” of gold, if you will.

m ∫ r ∫


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