When a French kiss is not a kiss

As Valentine's Day is approaching, many individuals are discussing (or avoiding discussions of) kisses, hugs, and love. Explaining these concepts in certain languages may sometimes be more difficult than expected if a non-native speaker is relying on first-language logic and cognates. 
In Spanish, the logic generally follows English. A kiss/to kiss is "un beso"/"besar," and a hug/to hug is "un abrazo"/"abrazar." Similarly, in Portuguese, the same distinction is made: "um beijo"/"beijar" vs. "um abraço"/"abraçar." Moving across the Romance-language spectrum, we find the same logic in Italian with "bacio"/"baciare" vs. "abbraccio"/"abbracciar." We run into major and potentially VERY embarrassing snags when we get to French. 
At one point, French followed its Latin brethren, with cognates "un baiser"/"baiser" vs. "une embrassade"/"embrasser" referring to smooching and embracing.  But then something changed. Radically. Confusingly.  
A thread on wordreference.com describes the situation:
As I see it, the confusion about kissing and hugging got started in the 17th century. The exquisite preciosity (and hypocrisy) of the Versailles courtisans - who called teeth "the furnishings of the mouth", for example - made it popular among them to describe having sex with someone as "kissing" them. It was less crude, but more ambiguous too, and it soon lost its euphemistic sense and became a word just as rude as f---. The result is that, until today, if you say that a couple is baise-ing, it means they are f***ing, et point final!

This expropriation, however, created a need for a substitute to describe the simple act of kissing someone, now that “baiser” had been irretrievably expropriated for another purpose. The solution created even more confusion - the verb "embrasser", to embrace, began to be used (or misused) instead.

The result of all this is that in current French one has to find all sorts of round-about ways of describing these simple acts. For example, to say "I want to kiss you", you can choose between "Je veux t'embrasser" or – curiously - "Je veux te donner un baiser", since the noun did not meet the same fate as the verb.

“I want to hug you” is even worse, since this gesture is not very French and, what with “embrasser” now meaning “to kiss”, has to be described in detail: "Je veux t'entourer des bras", "Je veux t'enlacer", or still "Je veux te serrer dans mes bras". Curiously again, the noun retains its original meaning – the seldom used “une embrassade” still means “an embrace”.
Talk about a potential minefield of traps for non-native speakers! Consequently, "Je veux te donner un baiser" is a perfectly innocent way to say "I want to give you a kiss," yet "Je veux te baiser" means something far more intimate. And "I want to give you a hug" comes across more like an instruction manual than a simple desire, as constructions such as "I want to squeeze you with my arms" or "I want to wrap you in my arms" are generally used.   
As for what English-speakers call a French kiss (i.e. a tongue kiss), in France it is often called (politely) as "un baiser amoureux" ("a love kiss"), with the verb "to French kiss" being "embrasser avec la langue" ("to kiss with the tongue"). In Quebec (Canada), however, the anglicism "frencher" is sometimes used as the verb-in French. Now that's ironic! 

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

1 comment:

AndreinaB said...

Actually, in 2013 there is finally a French verb which translates "to French kiss": 'galocher'! http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/30/187345073/a-kiss-is-but-a-kiss-but-to-french-kiss-is-galocher