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What is "turtle-billing"?
February 16, 2014 1:03 PM   Subscribe

In the course of a dramatic reading of "Fanny Hill" last night I ran across the phrase "turtle-billing," but I cannot find a precise definition of the act. Can you?

I found in "Love, Sex, and Marriage: A Historical Thesaurus" the term under "pertaining to one who caresses" alongside turtle-like and billing. And in (I think) Cleland's own "Dictionary of Love" I find "of all kisses, the turtle-billing one is the most emphatic, but rarely used, where there is not full liberty to use every thing else." But I can't figure out what exactly it is! I believe it is actually bird-related (i.e. turtle dove) rather than turtle-related. Is anyone acquainted with the specifics of this action?
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
It comes from "billing and cooing" like a pair of turtle-doves, and is definitely still in use. I've only heard it used to mean "general canoodling in a sloppy/sentimental manner" though; I've never heard it used to describe a specific action. Maybe the meaning has changed over time. Hopefully somebody else can help with that part.
posted by tinkletown at 1:25 PM on February 16 [7 favorites]


According to the OED, you're correct about it being related to the turtle dove rather than the turtle:
turtle, n.1
Now rare or arch.
1.
a. = turtle-dove n. 1 (Often mentioned as a type of conjugal affection and constancy: cf. 2.)

(...)

2. fig. Applied to a person, as a term of endearment, etc. (cf. dove n. 2d), or (esp.) to lovers or married folk, in allusion to the turtle-dove's affection for its mate.

(...)

Compounds
C1. General attrib.

(...)

b.
turtle-billing adj.
1616 B. Jonson Every Man in his Humor (rev. ed.) i. v, in Wks. I. 16 The happy state of turtle-billing louers.
And "billing" is this:
3. transf. To caress, make show of affection; usually (of reciprocal action) to bill and coo .
posted by Flunkie at 1:29 PM on February 16 [1 favorite]


OED def. 2. for "to bill" (in the avian sense) is "to stroke with the bill, as doves" (they quote Dryden, "Voracious Birds, that hotly Bill and breed"), and the classic two-dove picture does feature crossed bills or necks, I think. So could the turtle-billing kiss, as a technical term, possibly refer to some variant of French kissing-- with crossed and mutually stroking tongues?

It would certainly fit the other Cleland passage you quoted, re: turtle-bill-style kissing being something that occurs only at the most extreme levels of intimacy.
posted by Bardolph at 5:18 PM on February 16


Thanks - I suppose without an explicit (so to speak) definition, we have to fill in the gaps somewhat. I suspected something along these lines and this makes it about as clear as it's going to get!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:49 AM on February 17


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