In creating a repertoire of kissing nouns and verbs, the ancient Romans never got as slangy as Americans, who coined my favorite osculatory verbal phrase. Instead of asking “Would you like to kiss?,” a Yankee swain can blurt out, “Wanna suck face?” That vivid invitation couched in folk speech was popularized in the play and in the film “On Golden Pond.”

But dwellers in antique Rome did have a panoply of kissing verbs and nouns, all of which have left their descendants scattered throughout both everyday English and also sprinkled lightly in more raffiné realms amidst the technical vocabulary of medicine and other sciences.

No Physiology of the Human Kiss Here
Kissologists elsewhere on the internet have waxed analytical about the physiology and uses of kissing, the huge number of nerve cells clustered around the mouth and lips, making them a neural furnace of stimulation, but here, in this modest etymological notelet, there shall be no such anatomical disquisition.

By the way, the fancier word for a person who studies kissing is philematologist, from the New Testament Greek word for kiss, φίλημα philema, philematos. That’s the ‘kiss’ noun that New Testament writers used in the story of Judas kissing Christ. It also names the Christian “holy kiss” mentioned five times in the New Testament, as, for example, in Romans 16:16 — “Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Greek: ἀσπάσασθε ἀλλήλους ἐν φιλήματι ἁγίῳ aspasasthe allelous en philemati hagiou).

Philema may have been a non-sexual, dry, quick, ceremonial kiss such as men in the ancient Near East exchanged frequently, and thus a translation of the Hebrew nashaq (naw-SHAK) ‘to kiss’ and its common noun neshiqah (nesh-ee-KAW).

             'A Little Coaxing,' William Adolphe Bouguereau 1890 CE

Osculum, Latin ‘Kiss’ Word with the Most English Descendants
In English science, an osculum (Latin and English plural oscula) is an opening like a mouth, through which, for example, a sponge expels water. Osculum may also name any minute opening.

The related verb is much more common, to osculate, especially as a humorous synonym for ‘to kiss.’  Its Latin word story is neat. Os, oris is the Latin word for mouth. It is the source of our common English adjective oral. Osculum is the Latin diminutive, meaning ‘a little mouth.’ When one puckers up the lips in a circular labial muscular constriction, in the cincture of the lips preparatory to kissing, one makes ‘a little mouth,’ one osculates!

Rarer relatives abound in technical English. Consider the scientific adjective osculant ‘clinging closely together,’ used for example in the study of insects to describe the embrace of caterpillars. The agent noun appears occasionally too, to describe a campaigning senator who, during elections, was an inveterate osculator of small babies and defenseless infants.

Latin’s Treasury of Verbal Kisses
Latin had three nouns which meant ‘kiss.’ Though there is some dispute, in general, it seems as if basium referred to a kiss on the lips or a kiss on the hand, osculum was a friendly kiss and the rarest Roman term suavium (or savium) meant an erotic kiss.

This is the Latin source of the name of a quite popular Italian candy, Baci “kisses.” The Latin plural is basia. The Proto-Indo-European etymon appears to be *bu ‘to kiss’ cognate with Persian bus ‘to kiss’ and, of course, with an older English verb, to buss ‘to kiss.’

Knowers of Latin poetry will think of Catullus’ famous love command and the word used in the famous fifth ode of Catullus, all about kissing his girlfriend Lesbia: da mi basia mille ‘give me a thousand kisses.’

An obsolete synonym for ‘to kiss,’ last used in 1623 CE, was to basiate.

Suavium, the Sweetest of Latin Kisses
This was the erotic, tongue-as-tendril, French kiss of lust, from the Latin adjective suavis ‘sweet, agreeable.’ Here too is a seventeenth-century obsolete kissing verb, namely, to suaviate. I like the naughty, salivary sound of this racy verb and we ought to revive its use.

Let us conclude our canoodling smoochirama with four lines I like from Christopher Marlowe’s play Faustus:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss!

Her lips suck forth my soul: See, where it flies!”

Bill Casselman, January 17, 2017

Text copyright 2017 William Gordon Casselman


Increase your vocabulary by learning English derivatives from 3 Latin words for "kiss"

Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk