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Kissing from a strictly etymological point of view

Like every other custom in life, kissing has been studied from the historical, cultural, anthropological, and linguistic point of view. Most people care more for the thing than for the word, but mine is an etymological blog, so don’t expect a disquisition on the erotic aspects of kissing, even though a few lines below will lead us in that direction. Did the ancient Indo-Europeans, the semi-mythic people who lived no one knows exactly when and where kiss? And if they did, what was their method of performing this “gesture”? Did they rub one another’s nose, the way many people do? Did they kiss their children before putting them to their nomadic beds? Did they kiss goodbye to lost objects, blow a kiss to a friend, or kiss the hand of the woman whose affections they hoped to gain? Alas, we will never know. Even a common Indo-European word for “head” does not exist, and if there is no head, how does one kiss in a truly Proto-Indo-European way? Our records, beginning with Ancient Egypt, the Old Testament, and Vedic texts are quite old but not old enough.

In 1897 Kristoffer Nyrop (1858-1931), a distinguished student of Romance linguistics and semantic change, wrote a book called Kysset og dets historie (The Kiss and Its History; being a nineteenth-century Dane, he stuck to the reactionary habit of writing his works in Danish, but the book was translated into English almost immediately and is still available.) The 190-page study reads like a novel. A week after its publication, all the copies were sold out, and Nyrop was asked to prepare a second edition and do so in a wild hurry, to be ready for Christmas sales. As could be expected, he complied. Regrettably, he said nothing about the origin of the word. Yet the literature on the etymology of kiss is huge.

As usual, I’ll begin with Germanic. The ancestors of the Modern Germans, Dutch, Frisians, Scandinavians, and English had almost the same word for “kiss,” approximately koss (coss). Part of the New Testament in Gothic has come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language, recorded in the fourth century, and the word for the verb kiss in it is kukjan. As early as 1861, Dutch dialectal kukken surfaced in a scholarly work, and somewhat later an almost identical East Frisian form was set in linguistic circulation. It became clear that at one time Germanic speakers had two forms—one with –ss-, the other with –kk-. Their relation has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction.

Solomon in The Song of Songs mentions passionate kisses on the mouth, and Judas must also have kissed Jesus on the mouth. At least, such was the general perception in the Middle Ages (for example, this is how Giotto and Fra Angelico, but more explicitly Giotto, represented the scene), so the Hebrews and the Romans kissed as we do, and Wulfila, the translator of the Gothic Bible, probably had a similar image before his eyes while working with the Greek text. So the speakers of the Germanic languages called “kiss” a kuss– (the vowels might differ slightly) or a kukk-.

Whenever the ritual of kissing came into being, some kisses were used to show respect and in other situations served a purpose comparable to shaking hands (think of a handshake sealing a bargain). Kissing the foot of a king or the Pope belongs here too. Dutch zoenen has the root of a verb meaning “reconcile” (a cognate of German versöhnen). Consequently, people kissed to mark the end of hostilities. Later the Dutch verb broadened its meaning and began to denote any kiss. Something similar happened in Russian, in which the verb for “kiss” is akin to the adjective for “whole”: tselovat’ (stress on the last syllable), from tsel. A kiss must have been a gesture signifying “be healthy, gesundheit.” Another Dutch verb for “kiss” (this time, dialectal), with a close analog in dialectal German, is poenen ~ puunen and seems to have meant “push, plunge, thrust; come into contact.” Here the emphasis was obviously on the movement in the direction of another person. Then there is Engl. smack, believed to be sound-imitative: apparently, when one kisses someone, smack is heard. Onomatopoeia is always hard to prove, but compare Russian chmok, which means exactly the same as smack. Latin savium, of obscure origin, designated an erotic kiss, while osculum goes back to the word for “mouth” (os). Neither is sound-imitative.

Klimt's The Kiss
Klimt’s The Kiss

Where then does Old Germanic kuss- ~ kukk- belong? Many researchers have suggested that it is sound-imitative, like smack. Perhaps we really hear or think we hear smack, chmok, kuss, and kukk when we kiss. However, even an onomatopoeic word can have a protoform. Reconstructing any protoform is pure algebra. For example, the Gothic for come is qiman (pronounced as kwiman). Its indisputable Latin cognate is venire. To make the two belong together, we should posit an ancestor beginning with gw-. In Latin, g was lost, and in Germanic it yielded k, according to the law of the consonant shift (b, d, g to p, t, k). Did the ancestors of Latin speakers ever say gwenire? Most likely, they did.

In the same way, kiss was tentatively connected with Latin gustare “to taste,” on the assumption that at one time the sought-for form began with gw-. Although this suggestion can be found in one of the best Germanic etymological dictionaries, it now has few, if any, supporters. More instructive is the fact that the Hittite for “kiss” was kuwaszi, and it resembles Sanskrit ṡvaṡiti “to blow; snort” (k- and s- alternate according to a certain rule, while u and w are variants of the same phonetic entity). Add to them Greek kuneo “kiss,” in whose conjugation -s- appears with great regularity: the future was kuso and the aorist ekusa, earlier ekussa. On the basis of this evidence, several authoritative modern dictionaries posit a Proto-Indo-European form of kiss. Can we imagine that three or so thousand years ago there was a common verb for kiss that has come down to our time? Possibly, if “kiss” designated something very common and important, that is, if, for example, it existed as a religious term, something like “worship an idol by touching the image with one’s lips.”

Other hypotheses also exist. Kiss was compared with the verb for “speak,” from which English has the antiquated preterit quoth; Engl. choose and chew; Swedish kuk “penis,” Low (= Northern) German kukkuk “whore; vulva,” Irish bel “lip,” and especially often with Latin basium “kiss” (noun) ~ basiare “kiss” (verb), recognizable today from its cognates: French baiser, Italian baciare, and Spanish besar. All those conjectures should probably be dismissed as unprofitable. The origin of basiare is unknown, and nothing good ever comes from explaining one obscure word by referring it to another equally obscure one.

We are left with two choices. Perhaps there indeed once existed a proto-verb for kiss sounding approximately like it, but who kissed whom or what and in what way remains undiscovered. Or, while kissing, different people heard a sound that resembles either kuss or kukk. Neither solution inspires too much confidence, but, in any case, the long consonant (-ss and –kk) points to the affective nature of the verb. Perhaps an ancient expressive verb belonging to the religious sphere had near universal currency, with Hittite, Sanskrit, and Germanic still having its reflexes. If so, the main question will be about the application of that verb. The sex-related look-alikes (“penis,” “vulva,” and the rest) should, almost certainly, be ascribed to coincidence.

To prevent the Indo-European imagination from running wild, one should remember that alongside kiss, Engl. buss exists. Although it sounds like Middle Engl. bass (the same meaning), bass could not become buss, and it is anybody’s guess whether bass is of French or Latin origin. Swedish dialectal puss corresponds to German Bavarian buss, which is remembered because Luther used it. French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lithuanian, Persian, Turkic, and Hindu have almost identical forms (Spanish is sometimes said to have borrowed its word from Arabic), while Scottish Gaelic and Welsh bus means “lip; mouth.” Even Engl. ba “to kiss” has been recorded. This array of b-words seems to tip the scale toward the onomatopoeic solution, the more so because, to pronounce b, we have to open the lips. For millennia people have kussed (no pun intended), kossed, kissed, kukked, bassed, and bussed, to show affection and respect, to conclude peace, and just for the fun of it, without paying too much attention to origins. This is not giving a kiss of death to etymological research: it is rather a warning that some things are hard to investigate.

Nowadays the question where does a certain sentence occur? has lost its edge. Google will immediately provide the answer. So find out who wrote: “‘A gentleman insulted me today’, she said, ‘he hugged me around the waist and kissed me’.” Then read, laugh, and weep with the heroine.

Image credits: (1) “The prince awakened Sleeping Beauty.” From Kinder und Hausmarchen, von Jakob L. und Wilhelm K. Grimm; illus. von Hermann Vogel. Dritte Auflage), 1893. NYPL Digital Gallery. Digital ID: 1698628. New York Public Library (2) The Kiss. Gustav Klimt. 1907-1908. Austrian Gallery Belvedere. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Larsson

    I am astonished that you so firmly rule out “chew”! To me it has always been clear that kissing is a “caring” behavior, a remain from childhood in earlier times when mothers chewed babies’ “first dish”, maybe also when feeding weakened elder members of the family? I have no direct references contradicting your judgement, but I am rather sure that I have not invented this idea myself!

  2. […] regular correspondent Mr. John Larsson took issue with my remark that kiss has nothing to do with chew and cited some arguments in favor of the chew connection. We […]

  3. […] correspondent wrote that the Russian word for “kiss” also means “to aim.” Whoever suggested this connection seems to have confused the Russian words […]

  4. Yiannis Grammenos

    Homer-Odyssey…….ὣς δ᾽ αὔτως Ὀδυσεὺς κεφαλὰς καὶ χεῖρας {ἔκυσσε}…….
    …..καὶ {κύνεον} ἀγαπαζόμενοι κεφαλήν τε
    καὶ ὤμους………etc
    The word kiss, kuss, etc propably comes from the ancient Greek (homeric) word κύσον (means kissing) that comes from the ancient greek word κύων latin canis (dog) cause the dogs kissing all the time.

  5. Nelson Neocleus

    A couple of modern Greek writers seem to believe that the word “kiss” comes from classical Greek. One person quotes Homer and Aristophanes for example (http://filosofia-erevna.blogspot.com.cy/2013/04/kiss-me.html). A comment here (on OUPblog) along these lines has been made by Yiannis Grammenos last March. It’s an interesting claim but I cannot find it in any non-Greek sources.

  6. Carolina Ramirez

    There is also the word kissu from Korean spelt 키스.

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