Sunday, February 19, 2012

Your Little Mouth

Since I never got a degree in linguistics, I’m probably not qualified to say that a given word is cute. People probably need to study the cuteness quotient of the smallest elements of a given language before they can do the complex linguistic calculations necessary to determine whether, for example, pfisslepoop is an inherently, undeniably cute word. But as someone who’s at least 95 percent proficient with the English language, I will say at least that the word kiss is pretty adorable. Something about that “K” gives it spunk that a “C” just couldn’t, and the way it snaps at the beginning a slides away on the double-“S” at the end makes it an attention-getting little collection of phonemes. In fact, you speak the word kiss a lot like you’d actually kiss someone: sudden at the start, then tapering into something softer and lingering. It’s not a weighty thing, like hug sounds and like a hug can be. No, kiss, as a word, is exactly what it needs to be.

But let’s say kiss just couldn’t cut it as the term we English-speakers use to describe lip-on-lip action. Do we have any alternative?
osculate (ahs-kye-LAYT) — verb: 1. to kiss. 2. To convene or contact. 3. (in geometry) to have three or more points coincident with. 4. (in biology) to be intermediate between two taxonomic groups.
Most dictionaries note that the “kissing” definition of osculate is almost always used humorously, probably because it’s hard to resist the idea of two Coke-bottled nerds in lab coats making plans to “commence osculation.” But I say the latter two definitions are funnier. Think about geometry, with its rendering of real-life bodies in a flat, sterile and wholly theoretical plane. There’s nothing funny about lines and rays and all that, really, so it sounds uncharacteristically human — cutesy, even — to characterize overlaying curves as “kissing.”

Now with a deeper understanding of what it means to osculate, I look at the above illustration and see that that wobbly line is totally getting to first base with that circle. You get up all in those 360 degrees, line!

All that adorable personification goes out the window, of course, when you consider where osculate comes from. A verb whose use in English dates back to 1650, it comes from the Latin noun osculum, figuratively meaning “kiss” but because it’s the diminutive of os, “mouth,” it literally means “little mouth,” which either makes me think of the little mouth that lives inside the monster’s face in Alien or, like, a secondary, smaller mouth that develops on a person when he or she mutates or, like, develops one of those tumors that makes its own people parts. And that makes me want to never, ever kiss anything again, in any sense of the word, for fear of alien tumor kisses.

I… may not be a romantic person.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

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