Anyone interested in Latin kisses (and come on, you know you are) should hurry over to Varieties of Unreligious Experience, where you will find a thorough literary/philological investigation into the words osculum, basium, and suavium, sometimes said to mean ‘a friendship kiss on the cheek,’ ‘a kiss of affection on the lips,’ and ‘a lovers’ deep kiss’ respectively. Turns out “the distinction between these words cannot be primarily one of meaning (whether social or anatomical), but must rather be one of register.” And the reason basium has had far too prominent a place in my image of Latin and suavium none at all is that I’ve read too much Catullus and too little Plautus. You know what they say: it’s all who you know.


  1. I’ve always been fascinated by Balkan semantic shifts with kissing. In Romanian the Latin verb salutare has passed from meaning merely “to greet” to “to kiss passionately” (a saruta), while the verb for kisses of greeting is now a pupa (undoubtedly related somehow to Hungarian puszi). Meanwhile in Serbian and Greek, older verbs meaning “to love” (Common Slavonic *ljubiti and Classical Greek phileō) have now passed to meaning merely “to kiss”.

  2. Very strange! I had just translated Catullus V yesterday. These days have been rather strange.

  3. The standard story of the multiple senses that we got in classic Classics is in Maurus Servius Honoratus’ Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil 1.256:

    et sciendum osculum religionis esse, savium voluptatis, quamvis quidam osculum filiis dari, uxori basium, scorto savium dicant.

    As you probably know, Buck has a section (16.29) on kiss. Of course, his conclusions are more than fifty years old.
    To try to summarize some points related to this discussion:

    • The Indo-Europeans didn’t kiss, but rubbed noses or licked like other “primitive” peoples. Hence the variety.
    • A distinction between kiss of affection and erotic kiss (as above) is sometimes made in Latin but often ignored.
    • osculum is ‘little mouth’ from os.
    • savium is especially in the erotic sense as contrasted with osculum. It is probably related to suavis ‘sweet’.
    • basium was originally used like the earlier savium (Catullus) but eventually displaced both it and osculum. Its source is unknown, but perhaps a Celtic loanword.
    • French embrasser from bras ‘arm’ originally ‘embrace’ is a synonym for baiser since the 17th century and has taken over for it since the 19th, since baiser now means ‘fuck’. (Buck says this in a more circumspect way.)
    • Romanian saruta from salutare ‘greet’ might be a calque from Slavic (Church Slavonic celovati from celu ‘health’ like salus). But not necessarily. Old Spanish saludar can mean ‘kiss’.
    • Irish poc is from Latin pax ‘peace’ in church uses like pacis osculum dare. (You don’t see so many pog ma thoin bumper stickers around Boston these days. Maybe the demographics really have changed.)
  4. “…da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
    dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
    deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
    dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
    conturbabimus illa, ne sciamus,
    aut ne quis malus inuidere possit,
    cum tantum sciat esse basiorum…”
    “…cum tantum sciat esse osculorum” or
    “…cum tantum sciat esse saviorum” …
    just wouldn’t sound right…

  5. Re: Servius–dang, I forgot about him. But it just goes to show how divergent these sorts of prescriptions like these are from actual usage, as the examples I adduced indicate. Perhaps my post can be taken as an expansion of Buck’s “A distinction between kiss of affection and erotic kiss is sometimes made in Latin but often ignored.”

  6. marie-lucie says:

    (the French word “baiser”)
    As a verb, this word has undergone a semantic change, and the word “embrasser” means ‘to kiss’, but as a noun it still means ‘(a) kiss’, although it is rather formal. If you want to say “kiss me” or “give me a kiss” you say “embrasse-moi”, but “donne-moi un baiser” sounds literary to me – something you might see in literature of the past centuries. The verb survives with the original meaning ‘to kiss’ in the expression “baiser la main (de quelqu’un)” ‘to kiss (someone’s) hand” and “le baise-main” ‘hand-kissing’ – a formal greeting to a lady, now very old-fashioned if practiced at all. In the Catholic church you are (or perhaps were) supposed to greet a bishop by kissing the amethyst ring on his hand, again this is “baiser l’anneau” rather than “la main”. These are survivals from medieval times, signs of submission as they required bending down to reach the hand of the person, who raised their hand to meet the hand-kisser halfway if accepting or soliciting the greeting. Shaking hands was done between men to symbolize their equal status as well as lack of hostility.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. on baiser: the double meaning of “baiser” as a verb is quite old – in Shakespeare’s Henry V, in the bit of bilingual dialogue when the king is trying to persuade Katherine of France to marry him (not that she has much of a choice but he is being nice about it), he suggests that they should kiss, using the word “baiser”, but she replies that it is not the custom of French ladies to do such a thing before marriage. Whether or not she is meant to know this double meaning (she probably is, but a proper girl was not supposed to know if in more recent times), it is obvious that Shakespeare knew it.

  8. And don’t forget basiationes! osculationes?? I don’t think so…

  9. I’d like to know how it became ‘bico’ in Galician.

  10. My cheap dictionary says it’s beixo in Galician, which is just what I’d expect since it’s beijo in Portuguese. (Cf. queixo / queijo — veggie food words are a thing of mine.) And that bico is ‘beak’. Has the sense migrated in the real language, as opposed to the dictionary? Or are we talking about a verb form? It lists both bicar and beixar.

  11. I’ve seen and heard ‘bicos’ used for “kisses’ in Galician. I know the formal term is ‘beixo’.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    (“bico” ‘beak’)
    I don’t know Galician but it would not be surprising to see a word for ‘beak’ used to mean additionally ‘kiss’. In French “un becot” (acute accent on the e), a diminutive of “un bec” ‘a beak’, means ‘a kiss’, and indeed in Quebec French ‘a kiss’ is “un bec”. The French word “becot”, listed by the Robert dictionary as ‘familiar’, is definitely not a classy word – the example given is by Maupassant who was from Normandy, “un gros becot de paysan”, probably “a peasant’s big fat smooch” rather than a dainty peck on the cheek (note the word ‘peck’ in English – something birds do with their beaks). These words are probably originally from Northwestern France, of which Normandy is a part. Another word for ‘a kiss’ is “une bise”, and in the verbal meaning can be expressed by “biser” or “faire une bise” ‘to give a kiss”. The latter (most likely directly related to beijo, etc) seems to be the most widespread of these various expressions, but again these words are not considered particulary elegant. For instance, if you meet long-lost relatives in a rural area, they might suggest “on se fait la bise?” ‘OK if we kiss?’ (when you take your leave) but it is unlikely that your new boy or girlfriend from an urban area will say that to you, and you will not impress them if you use this sentence yourself.

  13. Something tells that there’s a very good reason that osculum didn’t get transmitted to the Romance languages while basium did. Kisses without affection that are formal are kind of a weird concept; no one certainly wants to think of a kiss as cold and muted of affection. Maybe that kind of kiss was particular to the Roman culture. The Spanish, French, and Italians could simply have had no use for the idea of a formal, affection-free kiss.

  14. Christopher, that puszi there made me wonder– there’s a finnish phrase for “kiss kiss”, (as in ‘Come here, kissy kissy’, or something) which is pusi pusi. I guess I wouldn’t claim some Finno-Ugrian relation, but I wonder what else Europe has for a /pusi/ sort of sound that means something to do with kissing or kissy noises?

  15. Ryan : there’s a finnish phrase for “kiss kiss”, (as in ‘Come here, kissy kissy’, or something) which is pusi pusi.
    I guess there’s some kind of equivalent in other languages as well, and that it is “Kiss Kiss”.

  16. Marcelo Caetano says:

    As a speaker of (brazilian) Portugese as my mother tongue and speaker of other languages refered to in the text, I would like to add that there is such an ancient word in Portuguese as “ósculo” meaning kiss. Nowadays it is only literary, if so.
    Also, I know that (French) kiss in Finnish is “suudelma”(French kiss meaning the passionate one. By the way, does anyone know why it is that English speakers refer to a lover’s kiss as a French kiss?). “Suu” meaning mouth. There is also in Finnish, as far as I know, “pusu”, the equivalent of “bisou” in French, or the very regional “selinho” (diminutive form of “selo” = stamp; seal, meaning a friendly kiss in brazilian Portuguese). I lived in Finland for a year and never heard anyone say anything like “pusi pusi”, but “anna pusu” (give me a little kiss) was far more common (to me!)

Speak Your Mind