Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Getting Testy

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2008

I was flipping through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly today, and came across an ad for a show on the Travel Channel called Bizarre Foods. I’d paste it in here if I could find it online, but the best I can get is this page on the Travel Channel website. In the middle (at least as of this writing) there is a looping video that begins with the caption “What is Andrew putting in his mouth?” A couple of pictures later you’ll see the ad that I saw in the magazine. The host of the show, Andrew Zimmern, is standing in front of a vending machine stocked with:

  • Lamb’s Head
  • Heart, All Beef
  • Fish Head, Complete With Eyeballs
  • Tarantula
  • Baby Mice
  • Curried Cockroaches
  • Bull Teste
  • Scorpion
  • Sour Cream and Onion flavored crickets
  • Cheddar Cheese flavored mealworms
  • Mexican Spice flavored mealworms
  • Bugs N Things
  • Worms & Flies
  • Eye Balls
  • Crispy Fish Head
  • Grubs
  • Mealworms

Did you spot the backformation in the list? Yes, that’s right, it was teste, formed by naively removing the -s from the plural testes to get the putative singular.

Often I have to remind myself that just because I can understand how some piece of the language has changed, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. The singular of testes is not teste. It’s testis, just like the singulars of crises, hypotheses, parentheses, and feces are crisis, hypothesis, parenthesis, and fecis.

Whoops. Scratch that last one. Back when the plural was still faeces in Latin, the singular was faex, but that form didn’t make it into English. If you just have to have a singular form of feces and don’t want to resort to suppletion by saying turd, backformation is your best bet: fece. According to Urban Dictionary, this singular form already exists.

Anyway, back to the Latin third-declension nouns ending in -is. I never hear people talking about one crise(e), or one hypothese(e), but I have heard some people refer to one parenthese(e), and now of course, one teste. I guess it’s to be expected, since parentheses, like testes, tend to come in twos, so that speakers are less likely to have heard the singular form and stored it in their memory when they need to use it.

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17 Responses to “Getting Testy”

  1. Ran said

    It’s hard to predict what people will and won’t say. One of my roommates in college used to say both “matrixes” and “matrice”; it drove me crazy. (I’m guessing he used the correct forms sometimes as well, but presumably I’d only notice when he used the wrong ones.)

  2. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    I’ve heard a story (probably not true) about a pro-life activist who confused the words fetus and *fece in a public speech. The activist reminded everyone that they all “started out as a fece”; a politician on the scene remarked that this wasn’t “the first time someone called [him] a piece of [expletive deleted].”

  3. Glen said

    I’ve often heard academics refer to multiple processes as “process-eez.” I’m always tempted to ask what a “processis” is.

  4. Viola said

    @Glen: Yeah, what is the deal with “process-eez?” I’ve heard it pronounced this way, especially on BBC, so I figured it was a British pronunciation. I’ve also heard “process-eez” in different crowds when people make an attempt to add an air of sophistication. Is it all a bunch of fecal matter? Forget the backformation. I’ll mess it up anyway, form a new word on which to contemplate, and stress the hell out of my little brain.
    @Ingeborg: Puh-leeeeeaze, a person should not even attempt to use any resemblance of the word feces in public unless he/she is a proctologist or gastroenterologist, or possibly a comedian who has to be incredibly funny.
    @Neal, you’re very funny, so you must know that I’m not advocating that you stop using feces on your blogs. Of all people, you know how to use the word “fecis” and “testis” properly and in a tasteful manner (ewwww, did I just say that?)Um, I have complete faith in you, dude. Let’s leave it at that, okay?
    As an aside, I’ve read the British and associated cousins are disgusted with Americans for changing hieroglyphs to hieroglyphics. Perhaps we have an affinity for making up special words we want to hear because it sounds so incredibly smart and fancy–very much like my movie boyfriend, Keanu Reeves, in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (which I still have yet to see in completion, apologies to Keanu.) Well, after reading this, perhaps I would enjoy watching Bill and Ted’s with the mute button on, eating Bon Bons, and drinking a glass of cheap wine. Cheers!

  5. Viola said

    @Ingeborg: It occurred to me that after the last comments and looking more closely at your comment that the speaker you were writing about inadvertently referred to “fecal” instead of fetal (as in fetal monitor, etc.) The speaker obviously didn’t mean to bring up fecal matter in public. My mistake. Please accept my apology on this matter. Your comment behooves me to watch myself so I do not become a “potty mouth.”

  6. Matthew said

    I agree with you that you don’t have to like changes to understand them. I think that even non-prescriptivists can understand prescriptivists’ love for consistency. Personally, I would never use “fece.”

    Besides, I can see why a singular form never made it into English. I always thought of “feces” as anarthrous. How would one define a fece (or a turd) anyway? That’s like referring to a grass or a pant or a wheat.

  7. Viola said

    @Matthew: I was thinking the same thing about feces in the singular form, although I doubt that I would ever have communicated this in such an eloquent manner. There are some words in life you shouldn’t split hairs with and apparently feces happens to be one of them.

  8. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Viola–Apology accepted; “fetal/fecal” probably IS the mistake that got the pro-lifer into trouble, and the version I’ve read has probably been distorted badly. (The “politician’s remark” sounds like a second reader’s attempt at humor, for one.)

  9. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Matthew–I agree 100%; the singular *teste strikes me as JUST PLAIN WRONG even if I understand how/why the signmaker might create that form. (Even if the average English-speaker has never heard “testis”–the word “testicle” is still a common, viable alternative!)

    As for a singular *fece…Yes, the original Latin word was plural, but it’s become a mass noun in English. (In fact, the original meaning was a less disgusting substance for which English also uses a plural form: “dregs”. Most people can accept that as a mass noun without needing to back-formate it…does the Greek/Latin origin of Neal’s other examples make that much difference?

  10. Lee said

    Is there a scatologist in the house?

  11. Viola said

    Neal is scary-informed on this subject. I’m thinking he was a scatologist in another life, either that or possessed by the spirit of scatology, which is far better than being snookered by Scientology. I’m gonna shut up before things get any cheesier.

  12. Matthew said

    I forgot to mention “teste” before, but I totally agree with Ingeborg. “Testicle” is definitely the word to use.

  13. Neal said

    Ingeborg:
    I don’t think feces is a mass noun like information or spaghetti yet. If it were, we would say *Feces floats instead of Feces float. I’d classify it as a pluralia tantum, like pants, scissors, or heebie-jeebies.

  14. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Neal: Or “frings”, to use an example that inspired some of my favorite posts here? ;-)

  15. adjusting said

    I find it interesting that in french crises, hypotheses and parentheses have as their singulars crise, hypothese and parenthese.

  16. [...] describing language, not passing judgment on points of syntax or word usage. But as I’ve said before, just because you can describe or analyze some phenomenon doesn’t mean you have to like it, [...]

  17. [...] Getting testy (here) on teste as sg. of testes and fece as sg. [...]

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