Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty

There are things we do that just don’t make sense. Perhaps some are adaptive and buried deep within our genes; some are maybe atavisms -instructions for ancient needs resurfacing in a different context; or maybe they are sometimes just exaptations -structures working differently and functioning for purposes not originally intended.

Kissing may be one of those things, although as the pandemic winds down, the activity is almost a museum piece. And yet, placing it in the same category as, say, a 17th century blunderbuss seems freighted with too many unpleasant memories. But we must remember that the naked mouth is actually a weapon with its own dangers, and when they were masked, finding lips was like trying to locate two violent people in a room with the lights off… Okay, I’m only going on memory.

Still, even an anatomically directed kiss can involve the unprotected exchange of stuff you may not want, and it’s only because of its recent rarity that we’ve had time to think about digital alternatives. I have several Emojis I save for special textual events, for example, and have become rather good at blowing text-kisses on my phone. I haven’t yet stooped to sending naked pictures of my lips online however.

But, as for real life skin-kisses, I’m not sure I could still depend on the memory of my increasingly entangled neurons to do the right thing, so I was pleased to find an article in the Smithsonian Magazine in its digital iteration, that tackled the process head on, as it were…

To start with, I’m quite proud of the new word I learned from it: philematology -the science of kissing. It’s probably not a word I would ever want to use in a real world situation, or anything, and anyway I’m not sure my lips still work; asking for a philemat on the porch before she finds her keys might send the wrong message.

I have to admit that the first few paragraphs, of the Smithsonian article did little to allay my anxiety though: the idea that even an innocent, parting kiss might ‘exchange 9 milliliters of water, 0.7 milligrams of protein, 0.18 mg of organic compounds, 0.71 mg of fats, and 0.45 mg of sodium chloride, along with 10 million to 1 billion bacteria…’ And, of course, that ‘Many pathological organisms can be transmitted through mouth-to-mouth contact, including those that cause colds and other respiratory viruses, herpes simplex, tuberculosis, syphilis and strep.’ Uhmm…

I guess I knew all that stuff, but I’m still puzzled. I mean why did we ever start doing it? What purpose does it serve, apart from finding out what the kissee had for dinner? Could it be those selfish genes that are constantly demanding more gene-similar babies? I do remember some cautionary tales in my Grade 4 health classes that warned about what unbridled kissing might lead to, but in those days I was far too young to understand tongues, and still too lacking in hormones to care. I’m fairly sure I had pretty well forgotten about the dangers of kissing by the time I got to university, though… Well, actually, I suppose it was by Grade 5, but I couldn’t get any dates then, so it didn’t really matter. I mean who knows what might have happened if I’d ever made the high school football team -okay, if I’d ever been asked to try out for anything more athletic than the chess club?

At any rate, by the time I was finally accepted in the chess club as more than a non-voting observer and the braces were off my teeth, I had decided that kissing was overrated. I had come to no firm conclusions about hugs, however. Of course, nobody touched each other much during a game.

Still, we don’t want to mate with everybody we kiss on or beside a chessboard do we -well, most of us, at any rate- so what could be its evolutionary purpose? Here’s where ground-breaking philematological research comes in I imagine. It discovered that ‘Saliva is full of hormones and other compounds that may provide a way of chemically assessing mate suitability.’ Hmm.

That’s fine on the surface, I suppose, but it raises some truly existential questions on a deeper level, I think. For example, does it mean an innocent tongueless buss commits me to something I haven’t signed up for? And would I likely be considered predatory if I puckered my lips on a first date, even if I had no intention of mating with her? Would it be better if I merely waved at her to say goodnight? Or shook hands at the front door to show her I’d had a good time?

And there is the whole issue of greeting-kisses that seem worlds away from romantic kissing and exchanging saliva, but since I’ve already dedicated another essay to it, I’ll let that go.

And anyway, I don’t think cheek-pecking, commits you to anything other than remembering their name and which cheek to aim for to start. It’s the same with hugging of course, but because there’s often no saliva, names are less important for contact tracing.

Customs are changing rapidly on social media nowadays, though; I’m not sure if mentioning romantic kissing or nondescript social hugging is even eyebrow-raising anymore. Much of what people share online nowadays is embarrassing… well, to the over-seventy crowd, at any rate: too many memories, not to mention our fear about being trolled. And anyway, there was a 2015 study in the American Anthropologist ( that found ‘The romantic–sexual kiss was present in a minority of cultures sampled (46%).’ Different bedtime stories, I guess…

Indeed, back to the Smithsonian article, ‘There’s evidence—at least from written history—that in the past, kissing was primarily mutual face or nose rubbing, or even sniffing in close proximity. In Hindu Vedic Sanskrit texts, kissing was described as inhaling each other’s soul.’ That’s a beautiful thought.

Personally though, I’d feel better about sharing my soul after gargling and applying fresh deodorant… you never know where your soul has been.


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