My brief history of “honesty,” modest by comparison, will confine itself to the noun form. What interests me in particular is the relationship between “honesty” and “honor,” the older of the two and the one closer to the root. “Honesty” derives from the Old French (h)oneste, which in turn derives from the Latin honestas. The Latin noun was formed from the adjective honestus, likely deriving from honos, “honor,” which is of uncertain etymology. The Roman linguist Varro suggested onus, “burden,” as the root of honos, as if honor weighs us down morally. In his encyclopedic work Etymologiae, likely composed in the seventh century of the Common Era, Isidore of Seville defined honestas as honor perpetuus, literally “perpetual honor,” and then more straightforwardly as honoris status, “the condition or state of honor.” Around 1930, the classical philologist T. G. Tucker suggested that the root of honos was *ghen-, to “make big, full,” but a definitive derivation remains elusive. The first definition of honestas given by the Oxford Latin Dictionary is “Title to respect, honourableness, honour,” followed by “Moral rectitude, integrity,” in which sense it was frequently opposed to utilitas, “expediency.” Cicero refers to a dissensio, or conflict, between the two, and Horace praises Lollius for preferring the honestum to the utile. Less frequently honestas was used in the sense of “Decency, seemliness,” one of the early secondary senses of “honesty” in English.
In the fourteenth century, when it first appeared in English, “honesty” was very close semantically to “honor.” In the earliest attestation given by the OED, from Brunne’s Chronicle (completed around 1340), the noun “honeste” denotes “Honour conferred or done; respect.” This is also the sense of “honeste” in 1 Corinthians 12:23 as it appeared in Wyclif’s Bible, a late-fourteenth-century English translation of the Vulgate. The point of the final clause of the verse, “and tho membris that ben vnhonest han more honeste,” is that we show the body’s more shameful-seeming members more respect. The word “honeste” appears elsewhere in Wyclif’s Bible in the sense of “Honour gained by action or conduct; reputation, credit, good name.” Thus it was possible — at least until the end of the sixteenth century — to lament the loss of one’s honesty. “Honor” has been used continuously in this sense from the beginning of the thirteenth century.
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In the mid-sixteenth century, “honesty” was first used in what the OED refers to as the “prevailing modern sense” — “Uprightness of disposition and conduct; integrity, truthfulness, straightforwardness: the quality opposed to lying, cheating, or stealing.” At that time two other senses unattested in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were current. “Honesty” could denote “Honourable position or estate; high rank; respectability” and, less commonly, “Honourable or respectable people,” as in “the honesty,” a collocation rife with Mood, in Empson’s sense.
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After the middle of the seventeenth century the lexical skein of “honor” and “honesty” began to unravel, as the older senses of the latter fell into disuse. But the relationship between the two terms remained close.