Like the flying ants that swarm at this time of year, certain tricks of speech seethe in sudden outbursts. I heard the word testament used by mistake for testimony twice during From Our Own Correspondent last week, from different contributors.
I was too kind about this usage four years ago when I mentioned it here. My husband, the plump canary in the coal-damp of misused language, has practically pegged out in response to the erroneous use of testament. In 2005, I noted that it had been misused in precisely the modern way 550 years ago, by someone called Sir Gilbert Hay. This only shows that in the 15th century people committed malapropisms avant la lettre. I can bear it once every 550 years, but not twice in half an hour.
There seem to be some righteous gentiles in the press still, for, in the obituary of Michael Jackson in the Daily Telegraph, I was annoyed to find this sentence: ‘That his recorded and onstage achievements have been able to overwhelm the seriousness of the charges laid against him is possibly the greatest testament to his talent.’ But, lo and behold, in the version of the obituary retained online, the Telegraph has gone to the trouble of amending testament to testimony.
Testament comes from the Latin word meaning ‘a formal declaration of wishes as to the disposal property after death’. We have retained that sense principally in the doublet last will and testament. Through a mistake, the Latin testamentum took on a new meaning in early Christian times. It was used to translate the Greek diatheke, which can mean either ‘a covenant’ (pactum in Latin) or ‘a last will’ (testamentum in Latin).