Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Wordsmith Wednesday: Why the French don't hug
When I had a date to meet my French penpal in France last year I agonized beforehand whether to shake hands or do the air kiss on each cheek. One option I didn't have to worry about was a hug. The French don't socially hug, I've noticed. They just don't. This may be because they don't really have a word for it. They used to — embrasser — but somewhere along the way the terms of endearment all got ratcheted up one level and embrasser now means “to kiss,” a real kiss, on the lips.
The cheek-to-cheek air kiss I ended up performing (flawlessly, as far as I could tell) is called a bise. Essentially you touch cheeks and make a smacking sound with your lips as if you were actually kissing, which in most cases you are not, then repeat on the other cheek. And it doesn’t always end there. The French, it seems, are so fond of the bise that they sometimes go for three or even four kisses, depending on the region. In general they kiss twice in the north, and anywhere from three to a tongue down your throat in the south.
Well, back to the ratcheting up of terms of affection: if the hug (embrasser) got promoted to a kiss, what happened to the word for "to kiss"? The verb baiser got promoted to the vulgarity, "to f**k." Except -- attention, mes amis! -- baiser can still mean "to kiss," but the kind of kiss a mother might plant on her child's forehead. In other words, kissing the pope's ring and screwing your girlfriend (or boyfriend) use the same verb -- it's all in the context!
So be careful next time you meet the pope. Quelle langue!!