Happy International Kissing Day! Kiss Up to These ‘Kissing’ Words

“The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt

Peck. Make out. Lock lips. There are lots of ways of saying kiss. On this International Kissing Day, we’re exploring just some of those ways and where the words come from.

The oldest kiss word in the book

At least as far we can tell. To kiss meaning to touch with the lips as a sign of reverence, respect, admiration, or as a greeting is from circa 900, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Doing so mutually between two people is from 1330. The word comes from the Old English cyssan, “to touch with the lips.”

Technically speaking

The 16th and 17th centuries saw some perfectly scientific words for this romantic action. There’s exosculate (1570) meaning “to kiss heartily,” deosculate (1623), “to kiss affectionately,” and plain old osculate (1656), meaning simply “to kiss.” All three come from osculum, Latin for “a kiss; pretty mouth, sweet mouth.”

French kissing

French kiss began a kiss on both cheeks, “typically as a greeting,” says the OED. That sense is from about 1836 while the modern, tongue-wagging meaning is from the early 1920s. It first appeared in the 1922 book Indelible by journalist Eliot Paul: “She showed me the French kiss where you stick your tongue out, but I didn’t like it.” Soul kiss might be French kiss‘s 1877 predecessor.

The sound of four lips kissing

The earliest onomatopoeia we could find for kiss is buss from 1566. The OED describes this kind of liplock as “a loud and vigorous one.” The 16th century also gives us smack (1570) and smouch (1578). It’s not until 1932 and 1942 that we get the variations of smouch and smack, respectively, smooch and smackeroo

Catching air kisses

The phrase, to blow a kiss, originated in the early 17th century, according to the OED, while air kiss — a kiss during which cheeks might touch but lips do not — has been around since at least the 1880s. From a Nov. 19, 1887 article in the Chicago Tribune: “The minister’s wife … knows where a kiss will do the least harm, and her favorite method is an air kiss, with the gentle pressure of her cheek to your cheek.”

Mwah, an exaggerated smack given on the cheek or an air kiss, is from the 1960s. The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1996 book, How Sweet It Was by Arthur Shulman and Roger Youman: “She performed with infectious enthusiasm and an unfailing smile, ending every show with a ‘Mwah!’—a kiss thrown to the audience.” Mwah-mwah was first seen in print in an Oct. 16, 1993 issue of The Times: “Everybody will have to kiss everybody every time they meet and half one’s day will be spent mwah-mwahing through a plump, wan sea of proferred cheeks.”

Euphemisms (sort of)

Baseball term first base was first used in the figurative sense of the first step toward success around 1892, says the OED, especially in the phrase “get to first base.” The kissing sense is from around the same time with the OED’s earliest citation from 1897: “I next tried to steal a kiss, but slipped and fell before I got to first base.”

Give me some sugar! you might have heard starting in the early 1920s, especially in the south, says the OED, meaning “give me a kiss.” If someone asks you to watch the submarine races, they’re not asking you to attend an aquatic competition. They’d like to “engage in amorous activity (esp. kissing and caressing), usually in a parked car overlooking a body of water,” says the OED, the earliest citation of which is 1950.

Tonsil hockey might be the least euphemistic of kissing euphemisms. According to the OED, it originated as mid-1980s college slang.

One thing leads to another

While necking might make you think of 1950s teenagers in cars, the term goes back to 1825, says the OED. First it meant to hug someone around the neck before it came to mean “to caress and kiss amorously.”

Petting is from 1920 with the OED’s earliest citation from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Parking is from 1922. Snogging is from 1945 with an unknown origin. The OED compares it to snug meaning to nestle or snuggle while the Online Etymology Dictionary says it might have originated in British India.

Pash is the newest word we could find related to kissing. An earlier noun sense meaning a crush or passionate infatuation (with the word being a shortening of passion) is from 1891, says the OED, while the adjective form meaning passionate or physically attractive is from 1920, again thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald. The OED says that pash meaning to kiss or “engage in amorous play” with is Australian and New Zealand slang. Its earliest citation is from Alan Duff’s 1990 novel, Once Were Warriors: “She had her arms up and he walked over to her and they started pashing.”

Check out this list for even more kissing words and phrases.

A Brief History of the Language of Fireworks

Crash! Boom! Pow! It’s that time of year again (much to the consternation of pets and phonophobes everywhere). However you might feel about the noise of pyrotechnics, you might still enjoy the language behind them. Ooh and aah at this brief history of firework words and names.

The birth of firework

While it’s believed that fireworks were invented in China back in the year 800 A.D., the word firework referring to the bright and noisy display we know today didn’t appear in the English language until 1580, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). 

Earlier and now obsolete definitions include a “combustible or explosive substance for use in war” (1528) and “work or activity involving fire” (1560). A later military slang sense (1916) from World Wars I and II is “the lights and sounds of shells, flares, anti-aircraft fire, etc., esp. when occurring at night.”

Another word for fireworks, pyrotechnics, is from 1729 (its root, pyrotechnic meaning “of or pertaining to fire,” is from 1704). As for the word firecracker, while it became popular in the U.S. in the early 19th century, again as per the OED, it first appeared in English way back in 1650 in a book by philosopher Henry More called Observations upon Anthroposophia theomagica, and Anima magica abscondita by Alazonamastix Philalethes: “The word σκιρτηδòν… seemes to allude to … fire-crackers and squibs rather then Cannons or Carbines.”

“You disgusting little Squib!”

In addition to being a non-magical person born into a magical family, a squib is a defective firecracker “that burns but does not explode.” The OED’s definition is slightly different — a “common species of firework, in which the burning of the composition is usually terminated by a slight explosion” — with its earliest citation from 1534. The dictionary also says the word might be imitative of the sound such a firecracker might make. A damp squib is something that disappoints or fails to meet expectations.

Fizgig (in addition to being everyone’s favorite Dark Crystal sidekick) as well as fluff-gib seem to be other names for the unbroken sense of squib.

Take these fireworks for a spin

A girandole or girandola is a kind of spiraling firework. The word comes from the Italian girandola, a diminutive of giranda, “a revolving jet,” which ultimately comes from the Latin gyrare, “to turn round in a circle, revolve.” It also refers to a fancy candlestick holder.

The tourbillion is another spinning firework, specifically a “skyrocket with a spiral flight.” The word comes from the French tourbillon, says the OED, which means “whirlwind.” The English term might also refer to a whirlwind or vortex.

The catharine-wheel or Catherine wheel is a type of pinwheel firework. Rather than shoot up into the sky, it remains stationary and spins. The name seems to come from the heraldry meaning of “a wheel with sharp hooks projecting from the tire, supposed to represent the wheel upon which St. Catharine suffered martyrdom.”

When in Rome or Bengal

A Roman candle is a cylinder-shaped firework that, when shot up into the sky, throws off sparks and fire balls. It’s unclear where the name comes from although the OED says it was “perhaps originally with reference to the transmission of the firework technique from China to Europe via the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.” Roman candle is also a derogatory term for someone who is Roman Catholic as well as slang for a parachute descent during which the parachute fails to open.

The Bengal light emits a steady and vibrant glow of blue, and is often used for signals. The name originated in the 18th century and might come from the Bengali region of South Asia, where one of the firework’s chief ingredients, saltpetre, came from at the time. 

Noisy names

One of our favorite noisily named fireworks is the whizbang, which makes a whizzing name before making a bang or exploding. This name originated around 1881, says the OED, while during World War I, it gained the meaning of a small artillery shell.

A petard is more commonly a small bomb but is also a small, loud firecracker. The name might come from an Old French word meaning to fart. The peeoy is a firecracker of the homegrown variety: a small pyramid of damp gunpowder lit on top. Also called the spitting-devil, the word is Scottish and imitative in origin. Who knew a lit mound of gunpowder made a sound like peeoy

Want even more firework words? Check out these lists!

Summertime and the Wording Is Easy: Five Fiery Summer Words and Their Origins

Happy first day of summer! How will you be estivating? We know what we’ll be doing: thinking about those summertime words. Here are some of our favorites.

barnaby-bright

“Barnaby bright, Barnaby bright, the longest day and the shortest night.” According to The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, this saying is from the mid-17th century and celebrates St. Barnabas’ Day — also called barnaby-bright and Barnaby-day — the feast day of the patron saint of Cyprus and Antioch, protector against hailstorms, and promoter of peace. Barnaby-bright was celebrated on June 11, once regarded as the longest day of the year.

summer solstice

Now we know the summer solstice is actually the longest day. Deemed the first day of summer, it cam occur on June 20, 21, or 22 in the northern hemisphere. The term has been in use since the 16th century. The word summer is Old English in origin while solstice ultimately comes from the Latin solstitium, “point at which the sun seems to stand still.”

wayzgoose 

Wayzgoose was a special “printers’ holiday or party” celebrated starting at least in the early 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Given by the “master printer” to his workmen, it was held around the feast day of St. Bartholomew (the patron saint of bookbinders among other professions) on Aug. 24 as a way to mark “the beginning of the season of working by candlelight.” 

World Wide Words says “the term evolved to mean the annual summer dinner or outing held for the printers in a publishing house or newspaper office,” and that with “advances in lighting methods and reductions in working hours, the event was often held in July instead.”

As for where the word comes from, that remains unknown. There’s much speculation — for instance, that goose was once served as the centerpiece at the feast — but not much evidence.

dog days

Those long hot days between early July and early September are known as dog days. They’re so called, says the OED, because in ancient times, the period was associated with “the heliacal rising of the Dog Star in the Mediterranean area, and formerly considered to be the most unhealthy period of the year and a time of ill omen.” Also known as Sirius, the Dog Star is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major as well as “the brightest star in the heavens.”

Indian summer

Indian summer refers to a spell of unseasonably warm weather usually occurring in late autumn. In use since the late 18th century, the Online Etymology Dictionary says the term might come from the fact that “it was first noted in regions then still inhabited by Indians, in the upper Mississippi valley west of the Appalachians, or because the Indians first described it to the Europeans.” 

Some suggest that we might want to use a name with “less colonial overtones” — for instance a moniker related to a saint. There’s St. Luke’s summer, named for the feast day of Saint Luke which occurs on Oct. 18, as well as St. Martin’s summer or Martinmas, which in addition to “a period of calm, warm weather” in fall refers to the Nov. 11 feast day itself.

Atlas Obscura has even more suggestions. The Spanish have veranillo del membrillo, “quince summer,” because “it’s around this time of year that quince finishes its ripening.” The Swedes have grävlingssommar, “badger summer,” because that’s when “badgers have one last chance to replenish their stocks for the winter” while Turkey has “pastirma summer” because “the mild weather of early November is perfect for making the cured, salted meat called pastirma (which gave pastrami its name but is its own delicious thing).”

For even more summer words, check out this list and this one.

In Memoriam: Quentin M. Sullivan

Today is National Limerick Day, so in memory of our friend and fellow Wordnik Quentin M. Sullivan (August 22, 1945–July 4, 2019), we’re celebrating his contribution of nearly three thousand limericks to Wordnik.

From late 2013 to mid-2019, Quentin (qms) wrote a limerick featuring the Wordnik word of the day, nearly every day. His wit, kindness, and linguistic creativity are sorely missed.

In his honor, we’ve put together a downloadable PDF of our favorites, and we’ve adopted the word limerick in his name, forever.

Five words from … The Trespasser, by Tana French

Welcome to the third installment of “Five words from …” our series which highlights interesting words from interesting books! Up now is Tana French’s The Trespasser, a crime thriller that’s chock-full of excellent Irish slang.

His accent has got stronger. I put on the Thicko Skanger act too, now and then, but I do it for suspects, not for my own squad. Sometimes Steve makes me want to puke.

Thicko Skanger, skanger, or scanger seems to be the Irish slang equivalent of the British chav, a disparaging term for a young, presumably uneducated person with a brash sense of style and manner. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) says thicko is a shortening of thickhead, a stupid person.

Breslin’s planning on working a long shift, for a bog-standard case.

Something bog-standard is something ordinary, basic, or unexceptional. The OED says the origin is uncertain but cites the theory that it’s an alteration of box-standard, an old term for the hollow column or standard for a machine, with bog meaning a lavatory or toilet. 

That was the gaffer getting all up in our grille.

A gaffer is a boss or foreman. According to the OED, the term was “applied originally by country people to an elderly man or one whose position entitled him to respect,” and might be a contraction of the word godfather. The same sense carried over to gaffer meaning the head electrician on a movie or TV set.

From the outside, my gaff looks a lot like Aislinn Murray’s.

Gaff in this context means a house, building, or home. Other meanings include a fair and a public place for cheap entertainment.

We’d be banjaxed anyway.

Meaning ruined, stymied, or confounded, banjaxed is a fun Irish slang term with an unknown origin. The OED’s earliest citation is from the 1939 novel, At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien: “Here is his black heart sitting there as large as life in the middle of the pulp of his banjaxed corpse.”

Bonus terms

Because The Trespasser is full so much great slang, we had to include some bonus terms:

  • bent adjective Corrupt, venal. Bent cops exist. Fewer in real life than on the telly, but they’re out there.
  • scut work noun Trivial and tedious tasks. For a second I think Breslin’s gonna tell me to stick my scut work, but instead he says, “Why not,” although there’s a twist to his mouth. 
  • naff adjective Unstylish or cliched. One of the reasons I don’t trust O’Kelly is because of his office. It’s full of naff crap.
  • kip noun Sleep. Go get some kip. Ye look even worse than this morning.
  • skint adjective Poor, broke. But they’re both skint as well.
  • spa noun An idiot or clumsy person. You spa, you. Come on and get this case meeting done.
  • bolshie adjective A leftist; short for Bolshevik. I say, just bolshie enough, “Because I didn’t want to.”
  • bickied adjective Drunk. He was always so bickied he kept forgetting he’d already tried and got nowhere.

Check out our first two installments of “Five words from” right here: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Peripheral by William Gibson.

Happy Administrative Professionals’ Day! 11 Indispensable Assistant Words

Every Wednesday of the last full week in April — that’s April 22 this year — celebrates those who keep businesses running like well-oiled machines. Not only does it make us appreciate all the administrative professionals and assistants out there, it’s gotten us thinking about trusty assistant words. Here’s a brief history of 11 of our favorites.

secretary

The word secretary is an old one, dating back to the 14th century when it meant a keeper of secrets. By the early 15th century, it referred to someone who keeps records, writes letters, and performs other clerical duties, especially for a king. 

“Sagittarius serpentarius,” Donald Macauley (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The secretary bird is so called because of its resemblance to male secretary garb back in the day, namely, says the San Diego Zoo, “long, gray wing and tail feathers” that resemble gray tailcoats, “black feathers that go midway down the legs like short pants,” and “long, dark quills at the back of the head” like the “goose-quill pens that they carried behind their ears.”

right hand

This phrase, in addition to meaning, well, your right hand, has referred to an indispensable helper since the 16th century, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Meanwhile, right-hand man is from 1626 and first meant “a soldier holding a position of responsibility or command on the right of a troop of horse,” according to the OED, before it meant a trusted male assistant. Right-hand woman is the female equivalent, but it’s not clear when it originated.

printer’s devil

In 1683, the first manual on printing, Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on The Whole Art of Printing, was published, and in it was the first citation of printer’s devil, a printer’s assistant, so called because the young boys would often end up covered in black ink. 

grisette

“Face au canal Saint-Martin,” Martin Greslou (Public Domain)

Originating in 1735, grisette is a French term that refers to a young woman of the working class, especially “one employed as a shop assistant or seamstress,” says the OED. It originally referred to a kind of inexpensive gray fabric, such as that worn by these women. The implication is also of women “who are free in their manners on the streets or in the shops.”

man Friday

Named for the sidekick character in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, man Friday first appeared in print in 1809, says the OED. 

girl Friday

The female equivalent, girl Friday, is from about 1928. The term seems to have risen in popularity after the release of the 1940 film, His Girl Friday, and then again, sharply, in the 1970s and ‘80s, dropping off after 1985. Why the term became so popular in the ‘80s isn’t clear.

administrative assistant

While this term might seem quite modern, it’s actually from 1841, according to the OED. From a book called Italy and the Italian Islands, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time by William Spalding: “Deliberations are led by the Gonfaloniere, who is recognised as the representative of the commune, the Anziani being his administrative assistants.”

swamper

Need an assistant for work that doesn’t require much training? You’ll want a swamper. According to the OED, the word made its written debut in 1851 and referred to a “workman who clears a road for lumberers in a ‘swamp’ or forest.” By 1870, it was also slang for an “assistant to a driver of horses, mules, or bullocks”; by 1907 a “man-of-all-work in a liquor saloon” and cook’s assistant; and by 1929, an assistant to a truck driver.

best boy

This strangely named title you might have spotted in movie credits refers to the chief assistant of the gaffer, the chief electrician on a television or film set. While it originated in 1931 or earlier, where the term comes from is unclear. The OED cites two theories: one, “that it originated as a term for a master’s most able apprentice,” or two, “that it was transferred from earlier use for a member of a ship’s crew.” However, neither has much evidence to support it.

body man

President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office at the White House Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, 2009, for his first full day in office. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

A body man, says the Political Dictionary, is “an assistant who follows a political figure around the clock, providing logistical assistance for daily tasks ranging from paperwork to meals.” William Safire discusses the term in a February 2001 “On Language” column, saying the earliest citation he can find is from a 1988 article in The Boston Globe by Susan Trausch:

Every candidate has a body man, someone who fulfills a kind of mothering role on the trail. The body man makes sure the candidate’s tie is straight for the TV debate, keeps his mood up and makes sure he gets his favorite cereal for breakfast.

It’s not clear where body man comes from. Similar terms include body servant (1689), body valet (1874), and bodyguard (1701). 

body woman

The earliest mention of this female equivalent of body man might be from 2008 in reference to Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman, Huma Abedin. From a June 30, 2008 Vanity Fair article by Gail Sheehy: “During the campaign she was accompanied by a body woman, Huma Abedin, a tall, stunning woman of Indian-Pakistani background with an unerring style sense.”

Want more work words? Check out our post on the language of working hard (or hardly working) and these fun lists on defunct professions and occupational hazards.

Cheese, Glorious Cheese Idioms! Happy National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day

"Grilled Cheese Olympics," Make Male (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ooey, gooey, and oh so delicious: the grilled cheese sandwich. Every April 12 celebrates this delectable dish, and just thinking about it makes us hungry. But it also gets us wondering about cheese-filled words and idioms. Today we sink our teeth into the language of cheese sayings.

Some really old cheese

The word cheese is an old one, dating all the way back to the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Its etymology is long and winding: in a nutshell, it ultimately comes form the Latin caseus, meaning, you guessed it, “cheese.”

Some simple Scottish word fare

Cheese and bread (sometimes bread and cheese) is an old Scottish phrase that refers to plain and simple food, says the OED, or food that’s needed for subsistence. Its earliest citation is from about 1530 while bread and cheese was first spotted in written form in Shakespeare’s 1602 play, The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I love not the humour of bread and cheese.”

Cheese it, the cops!

Meaning to stop, hide, or flee, cheese it could be thieves’ cant. The OED cites 1811 as the earliest recorded usage although it was likely in use long before then. While its origin is unknown, one theory says that it could be a corruption of cease.

As for the phrase, “Cheese it, the cops!” World Wide Words says an early version appears in O. Henry’s 1908 story, “The Voice of the City”: “The defence of Mr Conover was so prompt and admirable that the conflict was protracted until the onlookers unselfishly gave the warning cry of ‘Cheese it — the cop!’”

This cheese spins you right round, baby

So what do you do to amuse yourself when you’re a schoolgirl in 1835? You make cheeses of course. To make or perform a cheese was the act of spinning to flare out one’s petticoats, then landing on the ground with petticoats spread like a wheel of cheese. The phrase would also come mean “to curtsy deeply.”

That’s the cheese!

The cheese is an old British slang term for “the correct or proper thing; the finished or perfect thing,” says Century Dictionary. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the Urdu word chiz, meaning “a thing,” and was “picked up by British in India by 1818 and used in the sense of ‘a big thing’ (especially in the phrase the real chiz).”

We’re in the cheese

Slang for money, this sense of cheese first appears in 1850, says the OED, which contradicts the popular theory that the meaning came about at the end of World War II when Americans received a big piece of cheese as part of their welfare benefits.

The big cheese

This term for the big boss or an important person (or someone who thinks they’re important) might come from the cheese meaning the best thing. The OED points to a quote from an 1882 publication, The New York Commercial Advertiser: “There is a paper published in Florida called the ‘Cracker’. We presume its editor is the cheese.” 

The phrase the main cheese first appeared in writing in 1899 while the OED’s earliest citation for the big cheese is from Raymond Chandler’s 1934 short story, “Smart-Aleck Kill” published in Black Mask magazine: “So the big cheese give me the job.”

Grilled cheese is the bee’s knees

According to How Stuff Works, the grilled cheese sandwich as we know it today can be traced back to the 1920s when a bread slicer was invented “that made distributing white bread easy and affordable.” By then James L. Kraft had patented and was distributing affordable processed cheese. Combine the two and voila! The homemade grilled cheese sandwich.

In 1929, the phrase grilled cheese sandwich appeared in print for the first time (at least as far as the OED can tell) in a publication called The Van Wert (Ohio) Daily Bulletin:

Grilled Cheese Sandwiches—spread bread with butter and place a thin slice of cheese between two slices. Either toast or saute in a little bacon fat over the fire in a frying pan.

Sounds delicious to us!

Meanwhile cheesecake is the cat’s pajamas

Cheesecake meaning revealing photographs of women is also from 1929, says the OED. From a an issue of Photo-Era magazine: “It was with the ship-news boys, too, that I learned to shoot ‘cheese-cakes’.” However, how this meaning originated is unknown. The male equivalent, beefcake, is from 1949.

Say cheese!

So why the heck do we say cheese when we have our picture taken? No one knows for sure, but the earliest mention is from 1943:

[Ambassador Joseph E.] Davies disclosed the formula while having his own picture taken on the set of his ‘Mission to Moscow.’ It’s simple. Just say “Cheese,” It’s an automatic smile.”

The ambassador goes on to say he learned the trick from an “astute” and “very great politician.” He won’t name names but it’s believed he’s referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Prior to say cheese was simply cheese for a smiling expression. It originated prior to 1930 as Rugby School slang.

Cheesed off!

This British slang term for being annoyed or disgruntled is from 1941 or earlier: “‘I’m browned off,’ announces Taff. ‘I’m cheesed.’” However, where the phrase comes from is largely unknown.

Cheesy, not in a good way

Before cheesy meant corny or overly sentimental (originating about 1943, says the OED), it meant ostentatious or showy (1858) and inferior or second-rate (1863). These earlier terms were perhaps an ironic reversal of cheese meaning the best.

Who cut the cheese?

We expected this saying for passing gas to be a lot older, but the OED’s earliest citation is from the 1972 film, American Graffiti: “Hey man, who cut the cheese?” However, J.E. Lighter’s The Historical Dictionary of American Slang records oral use from 1959.

As for where the phrase comes from, that seems to be a mystery. The Phrase Finder says “cut” has been used to mean to expel gas since the 1800s, but we couldn’t find such evidence in the OED. We’ll just have to leave it to our imaginations — and our noses!

If you’re hungry for more, check out these cheesy lists.