Language Corner

Blowing kisses

September 17, 2020
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The comedian Samantha Bee recently told the Los Angeles Times about her reaction to the arrest of Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former strategist, by postal inspectors aboard a megayacht owned by an exiled Chinese billionaire. “For me, it was a chef’s kiss moment,” she said. “Every once and in a while we deserve good news.” 

Over at Cosmopolitan, a slideshow of performances by former members of the Friends cast noted that David Schwimmer had played Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. “Schwimmer gave a *chef’s kiss* performance, fully transforming himself into O.J.’s late defense attorney.”

At Page Six, “Katie Holmes’ public makeouts deserve a chef’s kiss,” said an article about the actress’ latest flame, an actual chef.

Twitter and news reports are full of “chef’s kisses” recently, sometimes rendered as “chef kiss” or “chefs kiss.” They’re given to hiking views, hockey playoffs, the “God bless America” signoff at the Republican National Convention from the St. Louis gun-wielding couple, and in many other contexts.

You know what a “chef’s kiss,” is, don’t you? As says, it’s made “by pinching the fingers and thumb of one hand together (often in an OK sign), kissing them, and then tossing them dramatically away from the lips.” You’ve seen them in trademarks like those for Big Daddy’s Hot Water Cornbread Mix, and the Muppets’ Swedish chef, but until social media came along, the “chef’s kiss” was usually delivered by a stereotypical Italian male wearing a white toque.

That seems to be the origin of the gesture. calls it “al bacio, literally ‘kiss’ but with the sense of ‘excellent.’” Merriam-Webster says, “The image of a chef giving the kiss of the fingers, as it is found on pizza boxes and cans of tomato paste, is a concoction of post-World War II advertising.” Enclosing it in asterisks or parentheses means it’s intended as a gesture, but it has also become a phrase on its own, used as a noun, adjective, adverb, or interjection.

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“Chef’s kiss” is still considered slang, though emojis are available to express it. Emojis can be problematic, however. This one, for instance, still suggests a stereotypical male, Italian chef, though it can be customized. And this one has the cartoonish chef displaying a hand sign similar to “OK”—which, as we’ve written previously, could be interpreted by some as a “white power” sign. (“Use of the okay symbol in most contexts is entirely innocuous and harmless,” notes the Anti-Defamation League in its Hate On Display symbols database, which details the sign’s recent white-supremacist connotations.)

Leaving unintended emoji uses aside, “chef’s kiss” is still not always positive. It can be used ironically, when something is over the top, or, as M-W put it, “worthy of being savored in all of its snarky glory.”

You must remember this: A kiss is sometimes not just a kiss. Sigh.

PREVIOUSLY: Where ‘grift’ meets ‘graft’

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.