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What Does It Mean to "Kiss and Tell"?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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"Kiss and tell" is an English phrase that was first used during the 18th century and came into common use in the late 1940s. In short, "kiss and tell" refers to the sharing of personal or otherwise assumed private information about a friend, colleague, spouse, lover or other person with whom one has a close relationship. Generally viewed in a negative light, those who are said to kiss and tell do so in violation of another person's confidence.

One of the first known uses of the phrase "kiss and tell" appears in an 18th century comedy play by Gabriel Odinselle. During a scene in The Capricious Lovers, written in 1726, the characters Graciana and Mrs. Mince-mode discuss disdain for loud kissing. The use of the phrase "kiss and tell” in this scene refers to noisy kissing drawing attention, thereby letting others know about the relationship of those kissing.

Publications and literature of the 19th century saw few uses of the phrase "kiss and tell." Although limited in terms of examples, what examples do exist imply a different understanding and meaning applied to the phrase by general society. Use and implied interpretation in the mid- to late 1800s appears to mark the beginning of modern understandings of the phrase. To kiss and tell in 19th century society often meant to kiss a young, unmarried woman and then tell others of the impropriety of the girl's actions.

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Modern usage of the phrase has similar understandings but with a much broader range of interpretation. Context clues typically frame the intended meaning. For example, to kiss and tell could mean sharing a lover's intimate secrets, telling embarrassing stories about friends or leaking damaging information about an employer to the media.

The media has, in fact, become the focus of the modern understanding of the phrase. Under this interpretation, the phrase has been applied to the habit of paying insiders for scandalous stories about celebrities, politicians and other high-profile individuals. Journalists often seek out individuals who hold key positions in companies or organizations or who are in the inner circles of prominent public figures. Such journalists sometimes pay for stories or photographs that reveal certain private information.

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