Word of the Week, 10/10-10/15/11 — kiss

kiss /kis/ verb … 1. verb trans. Press or touch (esp. a person’s lips or face) with slightly pursed lips to express affection, sexual desire, greeting, etc., or reverence. OE btransf. Of a bird: touch lightly with the bill in a supposed caress. LME.

D.H. Lawrence She leaned forward and kissed him, with a slow, luxurious kiss, lingering on the mouth.  L. Cody She did not like being kissed.  G.Vidal He kissed her averted cheek and left the room.

verb intrans. Of two people: exchange a kiss or kisses. ME.

H. Fast When had they last kissed or embraced?

3fig. averb intrans.  Usu. of two things: touch lightly. ME. bverb intrans Touch or brush lightly against. LME.

R. Graves My arrow kissed his shoulder and glanced off.

4 Billiards & Snooker etc. Cause a ball to touch (another ball) lightly…

5 verb trans. Bring into a certain state or position by kissing; take away, remove from, by kissing.

6. verb trans. Express by kissing.  Also with cognate obj., give (a kiss)).

Tennyson We will kiss sweet kisses, and speak sweet words.  W. Maxwell Bedtime came and I kissed my mother good night.

~ Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Everyone knows the word kiss.  It is a word of Germanic origin.  Julius Caesar did not kiss Cleopatra any more or less than he kissed his wife–in Latin he kisses is basiat from basio, basiare (there are a few other words, actually, but students of the Romance languages will recognize basio best).  Kiss originates in Old English (cyssan), Old Frisian (kessa), Old Saxon (cussian–Dutch: kussen), Old High German (kussen–German küssen) and Old Norse (kyssa).


Kissing affectionately

What is really remarkable about this word is the range of meanings associated with it.  There is the primary action of affection or love-making, involving a certain intimacy, familiarity or friendship.  This is, in fact, one of the primary expressions of love ranging from a platonic peck to a full-bodied, amorous make-out session.  The slang borrowings, however, most often operate by exploiting the implied intimacy of the kiss.

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Kissing amorously

Some of the slang phrases simply take on a characteristic likeness to kissing with other actions, such as “kissing the cup” which is to take a drink, but not of water or milk, this often refers specifically to drinking alcohol.  Similarly,  “kiss the book” refers to taking an oath, sealing it by kissing a Bible or a holy relic.

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Kissing the cup

In most other slang instances we see the word being employed in varying ways to create homage or subservience.  “Kissing the ground” was a employed in the case of royal or religious personages, or done for religious reasons.  In other instances, this is extended to losing the race, “kiss my dust,” defeat, death or submission, “kiss the ground” and “kiss the dust,” and, finally, various versions of “kissing a person’s backside,” ranging in meaning from a voluntary (brown-nosing) to a demanded (kiss my…) submission to one’s actions.  None of these slang expressions work without the intimacy of the original definition.  But, while they all share some sense of submission, they do so for slightly different reasons.

Kissing the ground

As an act of homage–which when enforced is easily equated with forced submission–it is a gesture of respect based on perceived worthiness.  The object or individual to whom the homage is being paid is regarded as holier, for example, than the individual who approaches and in many cases may not be touched or addressed without this act of homage.  This is similar to submission created by the other expressions, but more ritualistic and less crass.  In the case of athletic competition, for example, “kissing one’s dust” is what 2nd place through last place do behind the winner.  In more crass slang usages, there is still a perception of worthiness between two individuals, but it is based on hostility between the two, or a mutual perception of inequality.

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What makes the crass expressions coarse, is the usage of a word that we use in intimate situations to define power relations between two people as opposed to love and affection.  Because of its prior use in homage for centuries in Western Civilization, this application has precedent but the old usage does not survive today except perhaps in rare instances in which someone kisses another’s hand, but even this gesture we associate more with its proper definition than with slang.

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Kissing another's hand

All in all, I much prefer the proper definition, which is to say I enjoy it immensely.  In fact, I’ll sign off by kissing the cup to the kiss!


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