The Spanish language has two words for kiss:

  • Beso, from Latin basium.
  • Ósculo, from Latin oscŭlum.

The second one is very seldom used, and only in literature as it is a cultured word. Nonetheless, it seems that in Latin the two words were used for different kind of kisses:

  • Basium was used for the lovers, as the kisses you gave to your wife or husband.
  • Oscŭlum was used for the rest of kisses that showed affection or respect, as the ones you gave to friends or family.

I want to know when the oscŭlum word began being considered a cultured word in Spanish, so my question is: was the aforementioned difference effectively used in Latin? Or was the oscŭlum word already considered a cultured one in Latin?

Bonus: Was there any other word for kiss in Latin? I've seen suavium, maybe? Did I get their uses right?

  • Related question in the Spanish Language site, in Spanish.
    – Charlie
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 9:42
  • 11
    Not really addressing your primary question, but you should notice that while beso is obviously descended from L. basium, ósculo is not, but is a learned reborrowing. Had L. osculum survived at the popular level, the result would probably have been *ocho. Cf. macho < L. masculus.
    – varro
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 16:17
  • @varro Good point! Since we are into partial answers, you should totally write that!
    – Rafael
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 19:16
  • @varro actually I think you almost answer the whole thing: it doesn't need to be a cultured word in (Classical) Latin, but it is clear that it started as a cultured word in Spanish
    – Rafael
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 19:41

6 Answers 6


Another partial answer.

Tl;dr: kissing had a social role in Judaism that was inherited into Christianity (as osculum in the Vulgate), where it even had/acquired a ceremonial role (not sure if this one existed among Jews). Maybe—and this is pure speculation—this ceremonial role was what later made the word osculum a matter of respect and created the need for another one for its more common use. Maybe basium was a matter of pudity, but later extended its semantic field to encompass any kind of kiss.

Kisses (not those between lovers) seem to have had an important role in Jewish culture. At least it was so in the I century and was inherited into Christianity.

The Clementine Vulgate lists 53 occurrences of osculum, of which 38 are in the Old Testament, 9 in the Gospels, and 6 in other books of the New Testament. In turn, no occurrences of basium can be found.

Considering these occurrences, a word of two can be said about the role of kisses in I Century Judaism/early Christianity:

  • Kissing welcome to a guest was somewhat expected (Lc 7:45)
  • Kissing even the feet of someone with a higher social/religious rank was not weird at all (7:38,45)
  • A disciple kissing a master was a common, yet warm, greeting (Mt 26:48-49, Mc 14:44-45, Lc 22:47-48), and was the sign chosen by Judas to betray Jesus
  • A kiss was also an obvious sing of affection from a father to a grown-up son (Lc 15:20)

After the Ascension of Jesus, the kisses mentioned in the New Testament belong to two classes:

  • When St. Paul paid what he knew what his last visit to the Ephesians, they were sad, and wished him farewell with kisses
  • St. Paul ends four of his letters, and St. Peter one, commending their readers to greet each other in osculo sancto

This osculum sanctum became part of the Mass and was later known as osculum pacis. After centuries of social change and enculturation of Christianity in different times and places, kissing was not always the most appropriate sign of fraternal peace (perhaps sometimes too intimate) and so the signs—and name—adapted to what is today known as signum pacis (which may still be a kiss, a handshake or even a hug), and is observed on Sunday Masses and optional the rest of the days.

My intuition is that this ceremonial meaning before and during the formation of Romance languages might have triggered the need for another word for the common kiss: hence beso in Spanish, bacio in Italian, baiser/embrasser in French, beijo in Portuguese, etc.

  • 1
    You have an excellent point in the last paragraph. My assumption was that Vulg. L. retained the distinction otherwise lost in the literary language, but it well might have newly developed on the Christian background (cf. Eng. love vs. charity). Commented Jun 10, 2018 at 3:03

I cannot provide a complete answer either, but perhaps a few points one the subject of kissing, and the semantics of the words for it. I cannot, unfortunately, provide immediate literature references for these,

  • The elder word for the kiss is osculum, attested in the earliest writing, and with a very transparent meaning (“little mouth”). Romans had a greeting ritual of kissing each other, but only when the people were related clansmen. This strongly suggests (although I cannot recall either Fustel de Coulanges or Pierre Grimal directly mentioning the custom) the religious origin of this ritual: The significant unifying force within the Roman extended family was the religion, a cult of the household deities, well guarded against even sights of the outsiders. The parallel I see here is the very ancient, perhaps pre-Roman origin of both.

  • It is likely that Romans did not kiss each other on the cheek, or in any other way; the original kiss was on the lips only. There was not a distinction between same or different sexes in the appropriateness of this “family” kiss.

  • ius osculi, “the right to kiss,” was apparently an ancient law that allowed a Roman man to kiss his wife anytime he wishes. It is said to be related to the prohibition of drinking the first harvest wine by women (a religious offense, punishable by death: Romans were gravely serious about their relationship with the higher-ups!). However, this law was apparently being invoked by Agrippina to get kisses from her husband Emperor Claudius, so we can assume the law mentioned both spouses right to demand kisses, not only that husband's of the wife. This goes against the drinking-detection rationale (we modern people rationalize too much; I am always skeptical about any rationalization of a religion, and the ancient one doubly so). We do not know, AFAIK, any written form of this law. Apparently, this was also part from early Roman or pre-Roman cults, not being understood any more by the literate times.

  • The last kiss was given to a person dying in the presence of their relatives. I cannot readily find any sources; google searches for "osculum funeri[s]" or "funebris" do not reveal much.

  • Oh, but these searches, however, did uncover a summary, which appears more of original research than a scholarly paper on Roman kissing. Unfortunately, the bibliography consists of primary sources more than research papers, so take it with a grain of salt, naturally. But it might be an excellent compendium of primary references to start one's own research, so I think I should mention it here too.

  • suavium, another word for “a kiss,” according to L&S, is mostly ante-classical, although is found in Cic. The etymology is also quite transparent, cf. suavis. I cannot comment on semantic differences with osculum. FWIW, it might have started as a stylistic one, but I confess to drawing a blank here.

  • basium is the most interesting one, perhaps an example of the language in the process of conscious making. L&S provides a good clue: (rare and mostly poet.; most freq. in Cat.; not in Plaut. or Ter.). The origin is uncertain; the only connection I can come up with is the PCelt. *guss- “lip, kiss,” and, while the g would phonologically match the Latin b, if I am not mistaken the u and a cannot be related here. (But a relation to Eng. kiss is possible; perhaps a good question for Linguistics.SE.) According to (de Vaan, 2008), the word has been introduced by Catullus, who needed an expression for a passionate lover's kiss, unquestionably distinct from osculum and suavium. He also proposes the Celtic origin for it, but I would not accept that unquestionably.

    Indeed, there is a lot of passionate kissing in Catullus' poetry. In a span of the next couple centuries, the meaning mingled with that of osculum (and growing usage of suavium) to the point of an apparent loss of distinction. However, the distinction might have survived better in the Vulgar language, with the words derived from osculum taking the formal register, and the derivatives of basium the lower one (and the peculiar French development is undoubtedly of a relatively recent origin).

Please consider this a WIP; I'll try to find references for these points. I make notes on topics that interest me, but sometimes they are in an excellent disarray, so this is only how much I can provide now off my old notebooks.

ADDED: Although Harper notes that “[t]here appears to be no common Indo-European root word for ‘kiss’,” Starostin provides one, and relates basium to the same root (and, as a side note, indicates that the PCelt root may possibly be a Germanic borrowing).

  • Basium - a fossil of this probably also exists in archaic UK Eng "Buss" to mean kiss, likely imported into the language via French. Commented May 29, 2018 at 16:22
  • 1
    @DewiMorgan: True, and Harper confirms the loan origin of it. Notably, he also mentions that there is no common reconstructible PIE root for a kiss! Commented Jun 8, 2018 at 6:25

Here's counter-evidence for you, from Ovid Amores (2,5).

inproba tum vero iungentes oscula vidi—
illa mihi lingua nexa fuisse liquet—
qualia non fratri tulerit germana severo,
sed tulerit cupido mollis amica viro;
qualia credibile est non Phoebo ferre Dianam,
sed Venerem Marti saepe tulisse suo.

or here's an excerpt from Platus Mercator (744-745):

nam qui amat quod amat si habet, id habet pro cibo:
uidere, amplecti, osculari, alloqui;

cf. Fordyce 1961:

enter image description here

or de Vaan:

"The original meaning of basium included an erotic connotation absent from osculum; in Imperial Latin, basium became the general word for 'kiss'."

Who would think there's an entire article on Kiss in Brill's New Pauly, but it's there and it's quite an interesting reading.

For real data we'll have to look it up in TLL.

It seems a lot of the sources from "ye goode olde days" merely recycle the idea expressed by Servius.

  • I am wondering if you can relate some interesting findings on topic, if there are any, from BNP. I do not have access to it, and I doubt many Latin.SE regulars have it in their library :) *** By the way, if you do not mind my asking, is this summary seems lifted from any encyclopedia you recognize: novaroma.org/nr/Kiss ? Commented May 29, 2018 at 1:39
  • @kkm I'll try to summarize the article from New Pauly some time tomorrow.
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 2:07

Smith's Copious & Critical English-Latin Dictionary (p. 430) in longish articles is good on this, giving suavium as the "most suitable word for ordinary use", osculor as "the term most suitable for the highest composition" (cf. the original question) and so on.

In his arch, Victorian way, Smith cites basium as "esp. an amorous or lewd kiss" and, in fact, Catullus in the poems to his mistress Lesbia uses basium, basatio etc. to cloak a great deal more than that in the language of decency. We might compare this use to the French baiser with its range of usage, or to the obsolete (English) buss used by inter alios, Shakespeare.

  • 1
    This is quite interesting. If we add this information with Alex's response, we then have that the difference between words was not in the meaning, but in their uses (Alex cites a poem, a "highest composition").
    – Charlie
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 16:54
  • The French baiser in its modern (sexual) sense does not appear until the second half of the 19th century. cnrtl.fr/definition/baiser
    – fdb
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 11:08
  • @fdb Do you think it a coincidence that French seems to have re-adopted the ancient use as late as that? Our own, basic Anglo-Saxon verb was taboo in printing (but not completely unknown) for a very long time and still occurs quite rarely on the page : so did French, perhaps, have it concealed below their polite speech, all that time, to resurrect it for what we might call Catullus's purposes in either case?
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 16:02
  • @TomCotton. There are lots of racy writers in French. One would have expected at least Rabelais to have used it.
    – fdb
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 16:59
  • @fdb Quite so! But I'm no authority on French lit. beyond the few I read at school. I've got a copy of Rabelais, so maybe I'll start reading French again.
    – Tom Cotton
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 18:27

I've already commented on this, but I'll add this as (another) partial answer: ósculo is a learned borrowing from Latin from osculum, rather than having been descended from its Latin origin in popular speech, unlike the case of Sp. beso < L. basium, so it's natural that it started out (in Spanish) with a more literary feel to it than the common beso.


This is an answer to your bonus question.

Yes, there are a number of kissing words in Latin. Based on basium there are basiolum ("little kiss") and basiatio ("the act of kissing", also "kiss" by metonymy). AS you recalled suavium is used, and so is the diminutive suaviolum. In addition to osculum and words related to the ones you mentioned, there are unrelated ones: gustulum, philema. There are also a number of kissing verbs in Latin with a wide range of prefixes.

I found no evidence in Lewis and Short to support the distinction you make between osculum and basium. Instead, it explicitly mentions that these two and suavium are synonymous. There may well be a difference in nuance, but based on what I've seen in texts and dictionaries, I'm not sufficiently convinced yet. However, my impression is based on classical Latin. It is no surprise if new nuances have developed afterwards.

  • I took the differences between basium and osculum from several Spanish dictionaries and texts dating from the 15th century. One of them is the Spanish-Latin dictionary by Nebrija from 1495, that pointed out this difference between "an honest kiss" (osculum) and "a lover's kiss" (basium).
    – Charlie
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 9:58
  • 1
    I've seen in some dictionaries that osculum could also mean "lips" or "little mouth", could that indicate that an osculum was a kiss given with a small mouth in the lips? Well, that would go against my reasoning nonetheless. Also, you mentioned the Lewis and Short dictionary so I checked it and for osculum it says "only poet. and in post-Aug. prose" in one of the entries. Wouldn't that indicate that the word was a cultured one?
    – Charlie
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 10:06
  • 1
    @Charlie The note "only poet. and in post-Aug. prose" refers to literal use as "little mouth", not to use as "kiss". In fact, the meaning "kiss" (II) is marked frequent. A kiss is made with a mouth, so I wouldn't read too much into what kind of a kiss it is just based on etymology (and there's the danger of etymological fallacy, assuming that etymology implies meaning).
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 13:43
  • 3
    There apparently is a clue: “(rare and mostly poet.; most freq. in Cat.; "not in Plaut. or Ter.)” Basium was apparently introduced by Cat., given the word does not occur neither before his time not in contemporary prose or poetry, and AFAICR, was meant to refer to a passionate kiss between lovers, not the ancient osclum, likely originating as a pre-Roman greeting ritual of kinfolk, perhaps of religious significance (most kin matters have religious significance, as the Roman family has always worshiped household deities, taboo for the outsiders). Commented May 28, 2018 at 23:57
  • 1
    Sure! I can only compose a list of points (however much I despise Powerpoint-like presentations), as each one may be elaborated into a research paper on its own. I'll try to find at the very least some references, perhaps later. Commented May 29, 2018 at 0:15

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