Etymology: The prefix “en-” means to “put inside” and “bras” means “arms” in French… So literally, “to put between one’s arms”.
Nowadays, “embrasser” has evolved into meaning “to kiss” or to “take in one’s arms and kiss”. To say “a hug” (which we are so fond of in America), the French also use the verb “étreindre” and the noun “une étreinte”.
Probably because culturally, the French “embrace & kiss on both cheeks” to greet friends and colleagues, it has come to just mean “to kiss”. Now there are several more distinctions we need to make, if you don’t want to embarrass yourself the next time you meet your French friends…
// Donner un baiser // Expression: to French-kiss (the matching “slang” expression would be “rouler une pelle”, ah-hem…), i.e. a favor given to your lover only.
// Se faire la bise // Expression: to kiss each other on the cheeks, i.e. a friendly greeting to your colleagues and friends.
And if you ever get to live in France, it will take some getting used to, having to kiss all your friends when you meet at a restaurant, or all the colleagues in your department; and that is when you get there, and also when you leave (sometimes if it is too many people and it is late, we just graciously wave on our way out…). My American husband had a hard time with this cultural difference, and almost kissed my girlfriends on the lips several times (“Do you start on the left or right?”). For me, hugging was very strange at first, and quite uncomfortable.
Then there is also the gender distinction, when to kiss and when to hand-shake?
|Kiss on both cheeks||Hand-Shake|
|Close male family member to close male family member (or in the Mediterranean, also close male friends)||Male friend to male friend|
|Male friend to female friend||Male acquaintance to female acquaintance (sometimes substituted to the man kissing the lady’s hand, but very posh)|
|Female friend to female friend||Female acquaintance to female acquaintance|
I was watching one of my favorite French comedies, Les Visiteurs (highly recommend, you will not stop laughing!), and was reminded that the verb “baiser” originally meant “to kiss” (ex. « Permettez-moi de vous baiser la main, chère Marquise… »). However, over the years, it has come to mean what ensues from lots of kissing… but careful: the register is slang/ vulgar!
Merci beaucoup pour ton message, chère amie, je t’embrasse et à bientôt! // Thank you very much for your message, my dear friend, big hugs and see you soon!
Avec les collègues, nous nous faisons la bise seulement quand nous nous rencontrons pour un pot en-dehors du travail. // With my colleagues, we only hug (i.e. kiss each other on the cheeks to greet) when we meet for a drink outside of work.
Ils s’embrassaient à pleine bouche, si la servante n’avait rien gâté, pour se remercier affectueusement d’un tel bonheur.
Il est loin le temps où, étudiant, il se voyait embrasser* une carrière de diplomate au Foreign Office…
*Here, it is used in the meaning to “embracing a career”
Any cultural mishaps you would like to share about embracing the French culture? Comment below and have a great day!