June 02, 2016


Experts in historical linguistics or diachronic linguistics may have their own idea of the etymology of the Tibetan word for “kiss.” Here I wish to speculate about the possible etymology of the Tibetan word for “kiss” (as a philologist who uses Tibetan language and not as a linguist who theorizes Tibetan language). I do so at the encouragement of Dan Martin. First, it is clear that two common verbs can be traced in Tibetan language that mean “to kiss,” namely, (a) kha skyel ba, which simply means “to put [one’s] mouth [on someone else’s]” and explained as “to unite [one’s] lips with [those of] others” (gzhan dang mchu sbyor ba), and (b) ’o byed pa (“to kiss or to plant a kiss”). Of course, we can also find some other expressions such as kha sbyor ba “to unite mouths” (and contextually also “to embrace” (as in a coitus), kha gtugs pa (“to bring mouths into contact”), kha snol ba (perhaps “to cause the mouths to intersect”), and the like. Thus kha la ’o byed pa may be understood as “to kiss on the mouth” and kha la ’o gtugs pa (somewhat freely “to plant a kiss on the mouth”). Jäschke also records um rgyag pa in the sense of “to kiss.” Second, let us consider the Tibetan word for the noun “kiss.” It seems that the noun “kiss” is expressed by the Tibetan word ’o and its variants such as ’u and um. The orthographic discrepancy between ’o and ’u is easily explainable and hence it should not surprise us at all. It is like the orthographic discrepancy between O-rgyan and U-rgyan. No big deal! The component um in um rgyag pa is not easily explainable. Third, the question now is what should be the literal (or etymological) meaning of ’o’u or um. As wild as it might sound, I wish to make two points here. First, I speculate that ’o in the sense of “kiss” and ’o in ’o ma (“milk”) are somehow related. That is, the act of “kissing” and the act of “suckling” (without the accusative object) both describe an action that involves some kind of intimate emotion. When one “kisses,” one puts one’s lips on someone’s lips, for example, and when a baby “suckles,” it also puts its lips on its mother’s nipples. I thus also think that ma in ’o ma (“milk”) and in nu ma (“breasts”) should refer to “mother.” Second, I think that the Tibetan word for “kiss,” namely, ’o’u, or um, is not really an “onomatopoeic” or “onomatopoetic” word in the sense that it phonetically imitates, resembles or suggests the source of the sound that it describes, but rather that it tries to imitate and form a shape of the mouth that would be formed in an act of kissing.


  1. Dear Dorji,
    I'm completely convinced by your lip-shape argument for the meaning of the 'o! I wonder, too, about the tsum-pa — said in some glossaries to be equivalent to 'o byed-pa — which I take to mean a contraction of the lips. In English we 'purse' the lips, or, in Hoosier dialect, 'pucker up' in preparation for kissing. I imagine something like that is going on, even if I'm no expert.
    Yours, D

  2. The idea of an etymological relationship between 'o byed pa and 'o ma is very attractive -- 'o ma is isolated within the family and certainly an innovation (I don't think I have read this idea before). The old root for "milk" is zho, which means "yoghurt" in Tibetan, but still appears in the meaning "milk" in some varieties such as Chochangacha (see Tournadre and Karma Rigdzin's recent article), in cognates in Rgyalrong languages (Japhug tɤ-lu 'milk') and of course this meaning is the basis for the denominal verb 'jo / bzhos 'to milk'.
    The idea that 'o is of onomatopoeic origin is also likely.
    As for the dictionary word tsum "kiss", it could either be a Sanskrit borrowing (note that the root cumb in Skt is thought to be borrowed from dravidian) or a onomatopoeic root itself (in Khaling Rai, "kiss" is tsʉp mʉnɛ "to do tsʉp", with a similar sounding interpretation of the activity)

  3. Dear G.J., That's so interesting that Tibetan tsum (or tsum-pa) could be borrowed from Sanskrit root cumb (as in cumba, or 'kiss'). Apparently the south Indians invented kissing, or at least one word for it. Thanks! Dan

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