On healthy, wholesome “kissing”

Mar 13, 2015 by


In one of the lectures I am now filming for the online “Languages of the World” course, I discuss the issue of language relatedness, stressing that common descent is not always apparent or conspicuous. Case in point is the following boldfaced words:

German: Sieg Heil (‘hail victory’)

English: Healthy and wholesome breakfast

Russian: Tseluju! (lit. ‘I kiss’, a customary way to end a letter or a phone conversation)

While the parallels among these words are not apparent to an untrained eye, all these words indeed descend from the same Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root, *kajlu- meaning ‘whole’ and by extension ‘healthy’ (a healthy, uninured person is, in some sense, whole). The first consonant of the PIE root turned into /h/ in Proto-Germanic, the ancestor of both English and German, as a result of the First Germanic Consonant Shift (aka Grimm’s Law), giving us both /hɛlθi/ and /hoʊlsʌm/ in English, as well as /hajl/ in German. The spelling “wh” in whole(some) is rather misleading, as this word does not derive from an earlier form that had a hw- or hv- in the beginning, as is the case with many other wh-words in English. For example, what derived from the Old English hwæt and whale — from the Old English hwæl (compare with the Norwegian cognates hva and kval, respectively). The spelling of whole with “wh” developed in the early 1400s.

From Proto-Germanic the word hal ‘whole’ was passed down into Old English. An addition of the suffix ‑th, used to make abstract nouns out of adjectives and verbs (derivative from Old English , itself a derivative of the Proto-Germanic *-itho) gives us health (cf. Old English hælþ, Proto-Germanic *hailitho). The adjective healthy emerged in the 1550s through the addition of the suffix -y (also found in crispy). The word wholesome was “born” circa 1200 through the addition of the suffix -some used in making adjectives from nouns or adjectives (and sometimes verbs). The original meaning of wholesome was ‘of benefit to the soul’, and the earliest attestations of this word in the physical sense date from the late 1300s.

Let’s now turn to the Russian word. Perhaps surprisingly, it too derives from the same root meaning ‘whole’. The initial consonant in the root tsel-, /ts/, was produced as a result of a sound change known as the Second Slavic Palatalization. As you might recall from my earlier posts (see here, here, and here), this change applied across the three branches of the Slavic grouping: the West, South, and East Slavic. Consequently, its reflexes can be found in Polish, Old Church Slavonic, and Russian. The only exception is the Old Novgorod (or “Northwestern”) dialect of Old Russian. As a result, in Old Novgorod birch bark documents we find this root as kѣl-, retaining the original PIE consonant /k/. As discussed in my earlier post, Modern Russian inherited from the Old Novgorod dialect many inflectional forms lacking the Second Slavic Palatalization, such as the dative and locative forms ruke ‘hand’ and noge ‘foot’, but it generally inherited the non-Novgorod forms of the roots, with the reflexes of the Second Slavic Palatalization, as in tselyj ‘whole’ and seryj ‘grey’.

But how does one get from ‘whole’ to ‘kiss’? The root kѣl- ‘whole’ gave rise to the Old Russian verb tsѣlovati, where -ova is a verb-forming suffix (also found in, e.g., milovati ‘to give mercy’) and -ti is the infinitive ending. The original meaning of the verb had nothing to do with touching of the lips—a different verb, lobzati, was used for that. The verb tsѣlovati meant ‘to greet’, ‘to hail’ (as in “hail, Ceasar!”; this verb is another relative of the Russian tsѣlovat’) or ‘to salute’ (yet another verb whose origins are with a “whole” root, but I will leave it for another post). The greeting meant something like “I’m wishing you continuing wholeness”. Back in the Old Russian days, this verb did not imply any intimate action; it is attested as a greeting at the end of a missive from one merchant to another. At the time, the noun tsѣlъvь derived from tsѣlovati was also used as a greeting, even at the beginning of a letter. Today, tseluju ‘I kiss (you)’ is used only as a closing of a letter or a conversation, and in this usage it is still a form of greeting. Yet, the word also developed the modern meaning of ‘kissing’, or ‘touching of lips on someone or something, as an expression of love, affection, greeting, etc.’ (as defined in the authoritative Academic Dictionary of the Russian Language).


Of course, not all poceluji ‘kisses’ are wholesome—as we are reminded by the painting (reproduced from loveopium.ru) by Dmitry Vrubel’ on the remnants of the Berlin Wall, depicting the infamous 1971 kiss between the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his East German counterpart Erich Honecker. (The inscription says: “O Lord, help me survive amidst all this deadly love!”)






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