With the French finally getting a word for frenching, we take a look at the history behind our favorite words for kissing.
For centuries, French people have been problematically calling French kissing simply, “kissing” and French fries simply, “No, thank you.” One of those is about to change. Today, the French finally came up with a one-word verb for tongue kissing—galocher, which has now been added to the Petit Robert 2014 French dictionary. Galocher derives from the word for an ice-skating boot, inspiring an image of our tongues sliding around one another, all slippery and icy (are you a little creeped out, too?). To commemorate this grand linguistic milestone, I decided to look back on our most popular and troubling terms for kissing to find out why we decided to describe our lips pressing together in such weird, evocative, and varied terms.
1. French kissing
French kiss, first recorded in English in 1923, is said to have been brought to the language by soldiers returning from France after World War I. An intimate, tonguey kiss became “French” largely on assumptions and observations about the people. Anglo-Saxons assumed Gallic culture was synonymous with sexual exploration and adventure. It is said that before the “French kiss” became popular there was the “Florentine kiss,” popularized by Napoleon. Just so all those lascivious Italian readers don’t feel left out.
“Snog” comes from 1945 British English slang; that’s for certain. What does it mean? The jury is still out on this, but there are three camps: 1. The term is onomatopoeic of the sound of two people kissing. 2. Snog comes from “snug” which means to lie closely to. 3. It is a part of the group of "sn" terms like “sneeze”, “sniff”, and “snore” that describe terms of respiration. Either way, I am pretty sure this is one of the grossest terms for kissing on the planet.
3. Make out
“Making out” had always meant “to succeed” or “to get along with,” (coming from the German machen, to mix) until the 1930s, when it took on another connotation with the sudden arrival of “petting culture” (that’s what fine anthropologists call the prevalence of premarital sex). “Making out” implies a progress and a win, much like our modern day term “scoring”. In the 1930s, the burgeoning acceptance of sexuality and dating before marriage brought out the more suggestive aspect of the idiom. This, of course, then ushered in the era of the make out party.
4. First base
Coming into prominent use after World War II, baseball metaphors for sex have been a great educational tool to describe the natural progression of things to frustrated middle-schoolers everywhere. “First base” is kissing because it’s the start. It’s that first initial action which one must touch upon to achieve the goal of proceeding to other steps and finally home. While “first base” invariably always connotes kissing, as it is the first contact, the definitions of second and third base are still hotly debated on the backs of busses and in online dictionaries.
5. Mack it
“Mack” harkens all the way back to the Dutch word makelaar for a broker, and also from the French maquereau for pimp. In the 15th century, “mack” came to English, meaning a successful pimp. It eventually spawned into meaning “the sweet and persuasive talk of pimps” in the 1960s (sometimes called mack daddies). With the prominence of the phrase in early 1990s rap—think Biggie—the term lost its close association with prostitution and came to mean flirting and kissing on college campuses.
Coming into English slang in 1932, “smooch” is an alteration of the verb "smouch" from the 1570s and the German "schmutzen". “Smouch” means "to kiss", and interestingly enough, it also means "to smudge and soil", which is practically what we’re doing when we rub up against someone with all our saliva. “Smooch” is also said to be possibly imitative of the sound of kissing. If you start doing it to the back of your hand, you begin to hear it.
Coming onto the scene in 1825 from the northern England dialect, necking focuses so much on that body part because its motility is most in use during passionate kissing, as well as the fact that the neck is a hugely appreciated erogenous zone. Some dictionaries also say it relates to the Middle English "halsen", "to embrace or caress affectionately, to fondle sexually”. Fun fact: earlier, neck as a verb meant "to kill by a strike on the neck". I’m glad we changed up that meaning.
8. Yankee nickel or dime
This one’s not hugely popular, but the history reveals a lot about the culture it came out of. “Yankee dime” is a rural Southern term for "kiss" dating back to before the Civil War. A Yankee nickel or dime derives from the Southern stereotype that Northerners wouldn’t easily part with their money, so instead, they’d give people kisses (because, as we all know, kisses are free). Yankee kisses are often seen as chaste and innocent, thus the implied derogatory meaning is that someone receives something of far less worth than they expected.
This word for kissing actually has an evolutionary grounding, as early kissing is said to have taken place between a mother and a baby, with an early human mama-birding food into her child’s toothless mouth. Originating in 1300, “peck” is a variant of picken, meaning "to pick," and the German pekken, "to peck with the beak.” Shy, perfunctory kisses are often called “pecks” due to this same I’m-gonna-come-at-your-mouth-quickly-and-then-recede motion that 13-year-olds share with birds.
The “X” of “xoxo” came into prominence because the “X” resembles two faces touching, right? Well, there’s actually a much more complicated meaning behind the thing we sign most letters, texts, and Facebook posts with. The meaning of the “X” kiss dates back to the Middle Ages, when a Christian cross was put on documents as a symbol of sincerity, with the common practice being to kiss the cross as an oath. In medieval times most people were illiterate, so the “X” kiss became a ubiquitous symbol of honesty and devotion in place of a name. As we all know, it’s really taken off since the advent of indoor plumbing.