Kissing Cousins to the Kiss of Death: The Story Behind Every Kissing Expression

Ever wondered what a French Kiss is called in France? Or why Mozart wrote a piece of music telling people to kiss his butt?


We explored the surprisingly complex world of the hickie in the February edition of The Bathroom Minutes magazine, but what of its close relative, the kiss? Here’s the etymology of every common phrase involving puckering up.

French Kissing
This phrase appeared in the English-speaking world in the early 1900s, as a reference to the idea that the French were a more passionate people. In France, it’s known simply as un baiser amoureux, or “a lover’s kiss.” Before that, Italy held the mantle of Sexiest Smoocher, as the action used to be known as the “Florentine Kiss.”

Kissing Someone’s Feet
This expression is used to imply an act of submission to a higher authority (“I screwed up. Time to go kiss the boss’ feet…”) It has its roots in Biblical times: Washing the feet of an honored guest was considered a symbolic gesture of humility, most famously demonstrated in the New Testament by Jesus when he washed the feet of his 12 disciples during the Last Supper. The tradition was turned on its head by the Catholic Church around 1200 AD, when Pope Innocent III began insisting that others kissed his feet as a sign of respect. In both cases, though, the idea is to show your deference to the one getting the foot massage.

A more extreme and demeaning version of foot-kissing, obviously, and has probably been around almost as long.

Kiss My Ass
The earliest known use of this phrase comes from the 1773 play Götz von Berlichingen, by German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s a little different to today’s expression, however—translated, the passage in questions reads: “Me, surrender! At mercy! Whom do you speak with? Am I a robber! Tell your captain that for His Imperial Majesty, I have, as always, due respect. But he, tell him that, he can lick me in the arse!”

The passage impressed Mozart so much that he actually wrote a piece of music for it—“Leck mich im Arsch”—in 1782:

The Kiss of Life
Generally used to describe an act that breathes new life into an endeavor, and appropriately so: It began as a British slang term to describe mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the 1950s.

The Kiss of Death
Unlike its more upbeat relation above, the kiss of death has been around for roughly 2,000 years: It refers to Judas identifying Jesus to Roman troops in the Garden of Gethsemane by kissing him in greeting, effectively signing his death warrant. An expression referring to any action that seals someone’s fate, it was traditionally referred to as a “Judas Kiss.”

Kiss and Make Up
Generally used to describe patching things up after a disagreement between former friends or allies, this expression has been around since the middle of the 20th century. Intriguingly, it replaced a much, much older version of the phrase, “kiss and be friends again,” which had been in use since at least 1300 AD.

Kiss and Tell
Used these days to describe the action of someone being paid by a tabloid newspaper for recounting a sexual encounter with a celebrity, the term used to be less unpleasant, merely indicating that a person should keep such activities to themselves. Its first recorded use is in William Congreve’s 1695 play, Love For Love:

Miss Prue: He gave me this ring for a kiss.
Tattle: O fie, Miss, you must not kiss and tell.

Its current, more sleazy use dates back to the 1960s, most notably in Richard H. Rovere’s 1963 review of Emmet John Hughes’ memoir of Eisenhower’s time in the White House. Rovere described the tome as being “of highly questionable taste and propriety. It is a kiss-and-tell book.”

Kissing Cousins
Most people assume that this term refers to blood relatives with enough familial distance (a second cousin, say) that sex or marriage would not, technically, constitute incest. But its original meaning—which dates back to at least the mid-1800s in Virginia—had a much more genteel meaning: A family member one knows well enough to give a kiss upon greeting. Be sure to figure out which version is being implied if someone uses this expression around you and your cousin.