A few words for a thousand kisses

On Valentines Day we explore if English provides an adequate vocabulary to describe a thousand different kisses. Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote much verse about love and the appreciation of life. He was a poet of simple but eloquent language and, therefore, his work is most valuable in understanding the language of love:

Give me a kiss, and to that kiss a score;
Then to that twenty, add a hundred more:
A thousand to that hundred: so kiss on,
To make that thousand up a million.
Treble that million, and when that is done,
Let’s kiss afresh, as when we first begun.

A history of kissing

Kissing, surprisingly, is not a universal human behaviour (it is thought that rubbing noses is the original exchange of affection). However, it has been a habit of English speakers for quite a while based on our vocabulary—Old English had cyssan, from the Germanic languages kussen. The word does not have a clear ancestry in Indo-European languages (although the ku root is found in several languages: Greek kynein meaning to kiss, Sanskrit cumbati for he kisses and even in the Hittite kuwash-anzi).

Amorous vocabulary

Some languages have words that differentiate the gentle kisses of affection and the more amorous of lovers. Latin has saviari for an erotic kiss and osculum (literally little mouth) for an affectionate one. The French have had to use embrasser (literally embrace) from the 17th century because their original kiss word, baiser (from Latin basiare), became used as a slang word for copulation.

English poets have written of the delights of the kisses of lovers, but not made a distinction between the erotic and affectionate. Herrick best defines a romantic kiss for us in this couplet:

What is a kiss? Why this, as some approve:
The sure, sweet cement, glue, and lime of love.

English kisses

English has many different words for kisses (perhaps we are better at being tender) but they seem to do more to inspire comedy than romance:

A peck is quick impersonal and unromantic.

Smooch is modern, but is probably from an older word smouch (from the 1570s), possibly imitative of the sound and therefore more a wink than a sigh.

Snog is modern English slang from the 1940s and also less than poetic.

Mwah is a very modern (about 1994) and represents the sound of an air-kiss, which of course is less than intimate.

Smack meaning a loud one comes from about 1600 and gives us no romantic feeling at all.

Osculation from from the Latin osculationem is very scientific or clinical sounding and hardly gets the passions flowing in anyone but scholars.

Although it is still in dictionaries buss is a bit of an antique. It is the closest thing we have to a word for a passionate kiss. Buss comes from the 1560s and is related to the French baiser (but without the rudeness). If we again we believe Herrick from 1648 (who uses wantons here to mean a lascivious woman):

Kissing and bussing differ both in this,
We busse our wantons, but our wives we kisse.

Lover or spouse

So have a wonderful Valentines Day with your partner whether they be your lover or your spouse.