Kissing with tongues didn’t originate in Paris, so why credit it to the French?
Kissing is, to an extent, shrouded in mystery. There are some theories that kissing with tongues started as a way of exposing yourself to a potential mate’s smell and the taste of their saliva to determine the health and how suitable or unsuitable that made them pair up with. Others suggest it was initially a way of prehistoric mothers feeding their children chewed-up food, which gradually became a way of displaying value.
One thing everyone can agree on, though, is that the French didn’t invent it. Why, then, do they get the naming rights on the with-tongues version?
Among English speakers, in particular, France has always been sexy. Paris was the destination for wealthy young British men keen to sow their wild oats, and the world of literature is crammed with saucy French adventures. There are certain attributes to the French language and accent that almost force sexiness, with fricative sounds that exaggerate huskiness and breathiness, traits generally found to be very attractive. Several highly-sexed stereotypes are surrounding the French, generally associated with a sexually confident, adventurous, passionate, sophisticated sultriness.
They are stereotypes, but stereotypes that seem perpetually to be backed up by reality, from significantly more relaxed attitudes towards public nudity to casual depictions of sex in mainstream entertainment. To international film and TV audiences, it seems like there is an assembly line of impossibly attractive young performers—effortlessly cool, unfeasibly sexy, and at any given time only about 40% likely to be wearing clothes. There is massive confirmation bias at play, of course—if the only French people you ever see are pop stars and actors successful enough to be in international projects, of course, they’re going to be attractive and charismatic—but rationally knowing that doesn’t stop the stereotype persisting that French equals sexy.
Kissing isn’t the only sex-related thing attributed to the French – “French letters” is an old euphemism for condoms, while someone who had contracted “the French disease” was suffering from syphilis. Syphilis is, of course, an incredibly unpleasant disease, all the more so in the days before penicillin, but when labeled as French was given a certain air of adventurousness and libertinism. Sure, someone’s nose might have been hanging off their face, and the rest of their body might have been covered in pustules, but they only got that way through being a bit cool and sexy… It’s unsound logic, but there’s nothing rational about stereotypes.
When American soldiers went to Europe in World War 1, they were shocked by how freely and openly young French people would kiss in public. At the time, that was only done in the most private of settings in the US, so it all seemed unimaginably decadent and thrillingly hedonistic. This is what led to the adoption of the name—not just the action of one mouth against another, but the unbridled passion surrounding it. To be so overcome with desire that it didn’t matter where you were, you’d kiss like you were in private, just seemed in line with what was perceived to be the French character, exotic and passionate.
In France, of course, they don’t call it French kissing. Only in the past decade has a word entered French dictionaries specifically referring to kissing with tongues—galocher, derived from the word for an ice skate and meant to evoke tongues gliding across one another gracefully. This seems to be the go-to analogy, as another commonly used term, rouler un patin, roughly translates to “sliding a skate”.
The French didn’t invent kissing, but to generation after generation, they’ve certainly been seen as having perfected it. And, come on, “Voulez-vouz rouler un patin avec moi?” is infinitely more attractive than its English equivalent: “Hey you, lick my tongue.”