Sign up ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm sure most of you have heard "necking" to mean kissing with passion; however, before "necking" the popular word among American youth was "petting". From Flappers to Rappers: The Study of American Youth Slang by Dr. Thomas Dalzell states that by the middle of the 1920s folks overwhelmingly were using the word necking instead of petting. The book doesn't state when petting was first used. Nevertheless, I'm most interested as to why folks used petting and necking to describe one who is kissing with passion. Any thoughts?

share|improve this question
Necking doesn't mean “with passion,” it means “on the neck.” And petting doesn't mean kissing at all, it means “fondling.” –  Bradd Szonye Mar 15 '14 at 22:48
Not according to From Flappers to Rappers as well as online sources I've used which research old slang from the early 20th century. I understand if those words are spoken today they are understood more as you've defined them; however, my sources have defined them both to have once meant kissing with passion. –  User53019 Mar 15 '14 at 22:53
They're euphemisms, and euphemisms have a short half-life. As soon as everybody knows, they're just synonyms and you have to find a new euphemism. Taboo words, on the other hand, are the healthiest in the language; everybody has to know them in order to avoid saying them. –  John Lawler Mar 15 '14 at 22:58
If you have sources that define the words differently from their usual meaning, please include an excerpt in your question. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 15 '14 at 23:01
@User53019: We've already addressed the status of that book when it comes to "reliable use of slang" in one of your earlier questions. Without question, almost all native speakers who still use the word petting (vanishingly few, as John implies) understand it to mean touching erogenous zones (perhaps through clothing). Necking is even more dated, but it basically meant putting heads/necks together, which will pretty much inevitably involve kissing. Totally different to petting. –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '14 at 23:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The verb 'neck' meaning "to kiss, embrace, caress" is first recorded 1825 (implied in necking) in northern England dial., from the noun.

I would imagine the implication is that the activity took place from the neck upwards.

The sense of 'petting' meaning "to stroke" is first found 1818. Slang sense of "kiss and caress" is from 1920 (implied in petting, in F. Scott Fitzgerald).

The common-sense trajectory seems to be the use of the word in relation to domestic animals, then children, then adults affectionately, then romantically.

See 'petting parties' here.

All very tame compared to bussing, it would seem. :)

share|improve this answer
I wonder how much bussing is influenced by French baiser - to kiss. Where in actual fact, baise-moi would probably translate more accurately as fuck me rather than kiss me. –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '14 at 23:20
@FumbleFingers Seems closer than the given German 'kuss', but then perhaps they took that distinction into account. –  Leon Conrad Mar 15 '14 at 23:24
You just prompted me to check OED. They say "origin uncertain", but like your link, they give the obsolete bass (cognate with Fr baiser) before mentioning the German possibility. For myself, I have no problem accepting that many current words are to a greater or lesser extent "mixed parentage". Or at least, that various "aunts and uncles" may help a word to retain currency, or shift its meaning. As we're now discovering with the genetics of viruses/bacteria, "direct lineage" isn't always the only factor when studying the link between past and present. –  FumbleFingers Mar 15 '14 at 23:34

I am by no means an expert. However, I do observe and like to make a hypothesis based on the observations. I think it may be possible that the term "necking" may have come the observed actions of many birds' mating rituals. The observation that I made was the mating ritual of the common dove. I noticed that two doves that are established mates occasionally go through an intricate dance that seemed to terminate with both birds pecking and grooming each others neck. Just a thought from a common man.

share|improve this answer

Here is the actual sentence from the "College Slang" sidebar in chapter 2 ("The 1920s: The Flapper") of Tom Dalzell, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang (1996) in which necking and petting are discussed:

Necking replaced "petting" to mean kissing, while a party referred either to a girl who necked or necking itself.

In the book's glossary of 1920s slang, Dalzell includes this entry for necker:

necker A petter who puts her arms around a boy's neck

And this one for petting pantry:

petting pantry A movie theater

Dalzell revisits necking and petting in chapter 4 ("The 1940s: The Jive Generation"), though with very little explanation of what it meant:

What was in the past known as petting or necking was known by the sub-deb as boodling, gooing it, hacking, monking, mousing, mugging, or smooching.

I have detailed elsewhere at some length my unsuccessful attempts to corroborate another of Dalzell's assertions about 1920s slang—namely, that grungy meant "envious"—and in a comment above, FumbleFingers alludes to another dubious claim about 1920s slang in the same work: that pine feathers period referred to "The period in a Flapper's life when she blossoms out."

It is certainly possible that some young people in the 1920s used petting in the narrow sense of "kissing passionately" (perhaps further distinguished by the girl's having her arms around the boy's neck), but I wouldn't reach that conclusion on the strength of Dalzell's assertions alone. I also recommend being extremely cautious about using contemporary online sources to corroborate Dalzell, since many such sources base their information on Flappers 2 Rappers, and therefore do not provide independent confirmation of its conclusions.

Fortunately, unlike Dalzell, we have the authoritative insight of Time magazine to set us straight. From Time (January 17, 1927) [combined snippets]:

"What do you Americans mean by 'petting' or 'necking'? queried, last week at Chicago, Canon William Thompson Elliott, of Leeds, England. There to show himself a clergyman of the world, he hastily added: "Those words don't exist in England. The things which I imagine are referred to don't happen over there. I'm sure they don't."

To oblige the Canon, reporters ventured definitions:—

"'Petting' and 'necking' arc about the same; but girls prefer to describe it by the former word and youths by the latter."

"'Necking' is apt, strictly speaking, to be more violent but more innocent than 'petting.'"

"Either 'petting' or 'necking' may describe any series of caresses which stop short of copulation."

Prudent, Canon Elliott expressed no opinion on these definitions. When persistent newsgatherers asked: "Isn't it true that in Australia 'Do you smooge?' is equivalent to 'How about a petting party?'" the Canon was again silent.

Writing for the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, Sidney Weston, Young People's Relationships (1931) [combined snippets] also offers a much more nuanced account of the different possible meanings of petting at the end of flapper era than Dalzell does 65 years later:

"Light Petting" and "Heavy Petting"

Students sometimes distinguish between "light petting" and "heavy petting," meaning, by the former term, the milder and more restricted forms of endearment, and by the latter the more intimate, unrestricted and agitating kinds of physical-emotional relations. What happens in "heavy petting" is that young people, without the intention of going further, embrace and fondle each other in ways similar to those of married lovers who are preparing for physical union.

It thus appears that during the 1920s and shortly thereafter, petting was understood not to be exclusively (or indeed primarily) a matter of kissing—but activities along a continuum ranging from touching to embracing to fondling to pawing to groping—with kissing included for good measure.

Presumably petting arose from the term for gently touching a pet animal. Necking, meanwhile, is associated in discussions from 1922 and 1923 with the phenomenon of dancing cheek to cheek (and hence neck to neck). Here is the relevant portion of J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994) for the verb neck:

neck v. 1. Orig. Stu[dent] to engage in amorous embracing and kissing; pet. —Also used trans. Now colloq. Hence necker, necking, n. [Relevant examples:} 1922 D[ialect] N[otes] V 148: Necking, dancing with cheeks together. 1923 H.L. Mencken Amer[ican] Lang[uage] (ed. 3) 272: Necker; one given to cheek-to-cheek dancing. ... 1925 Lit[erary] Digest (Mar. 15) 65: "Petting" now exists only in the college novels, the more forceful, if more obscure "necking" having taken its place to describe amorous adventures.

This last-cited reference from 1925 may be the source of Dalzell's information that "necking" replaced "petting" as a standard slang term during the 1920s, though where Dalzell got the idea that it was confined to kissing I have no idea.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.