The English language contains many “French” terms: fries, manicures, braids, toast and the très sexy “French kiss.”
While all of these have compelling backstories, the “French kiss” origin question is particularly interesting. Indeed, why do we call this kind of open-mouthed smooch a “French kiss”? Did this style of kissing start in France?
References to open-mouthed kissing and kissing with tongues reportedly date back thousands of years in different parts of the world. The association with the French is a more modern phenomenon.
The most popular explanation is that American and British servicemen in France during World War I were struck by the more passionate way French women kissed. When they returned home, they introduced “French kissing” to their compatriots.
Others believe the term simply came to be due to the French people’s general reputation for adventurous and lustful sex practices. Paris is the “City of Love” after all.
In her book, “The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us,” writer Sheril Kirshenbaum posits that the term “French kiss” entered the English language around 1923 (the year noted in the Oxford English Dictionary). She writes:
The precise reason we use this term is unknown, but it’s possible that “French kiss” was adopted because American travelers were impressed by the affectionate nature of French women, who were more comfortable with open-mouthed kissing than their counterparts. According to anthropologist Vaughn Bryant, this led to a popular saying: “While in France get the girls to kiss you,” which later turned into “get a French kiss.”
So while servicemen didn’t necessarily coin the term, Kirshenbaum believes that they helped popularize the practice of tongue-kissing after returning home from Europe. As a result, French kissing appears to have become more common after World War II.
(Interestingly, the “French kiss” has also been called the “Florentine kiss” so we would be remiss not to give the Italians a shoutout as well.)
The below graph from Google Books Ngram indicates that references to “french kiss” in published literature began after the 1940s, which would track with the theory of returning World War II soldiers popularizing the practice (and thus the term). A search of “French kiss” with a capital F indicates a similar upward trajectory after the 1940s.
Still, there are earlier examples. A 1918 letter from “Private Lindner’s Letters: Censored and Uncensored” (published in 1939) reads:
“Being able to read French fluently and speak it wretchedly, and to speak German connectively but not to read it at all, I am taking up Luxembourg, which is a wonderful blend of the two, a sort of laison [sic] between tongues. (Not to be confused with French kissing.)”
But French kissing didn’t get to be all the rage until decades later. Kirshenbaum writes in her book that “social factors seemed to influence” whether or not Americans kissed with their tongues in the mid-20th century.
In Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 report “Sexuality in the Human Male,” for instance, kissing style was found to correlate with a person’s level of education. Seventy percent of well-educated men admitted to French kissing, while only 40 percent of those who dropped out of high school did. When Kinsey surveyed women ﬁve years later he found that those who had experienced premarital sex had a greater incidence of tongue-kissing than those who did not.
It should come as no surprise that the French do not refer to open-mouthed kissing with tongue as “French kissing” ― just as they don’t order “French onion soup” at restaurants.
But the French didn’t even have their own official term for this style of kiss until 2013, when the slang “galocher,” which means “to kiss with tongues,” first appeared in the Petit Robert dictionary.
So there you have it, mes petits croissants. Next time you reach first base and find yourself wondering, “Why is it called ‘French kissing?’” (which is hopefully not often), you’ll have the intel.