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The Affectionate Embrace

A History of Hugging

A hug is one of the most simple and unadorned gestures of affection. “To hug” means to clasp or hold closely, especially in one’s arms, to embrace and enfold in affection. It can also mean to hold fast or to cherish (Keating).

While the actual history of the physical gesture does not seem to be able to be traced, the word “hug” and its corresponding action have been expressed in many interesting and unusual ways throughout history, from the first “tree huggers” in India to the Free Hugs movement that is active even today.

Hugging is a near universal gesture among the world's cultures that expresses humanity’s need to be solidly, physically connected in a way that transcends language.


The word “hug” seems most likely to be of Scandinavian origin and is probably related to, if not borrowed from, the Old Norse hugga, which means “to comfort,” and comes from hugr, “courage or mood.” This stemmed from the Proto-Germanic word hugjan, which also produced the Old English word hycgan, “to think or consider,” and the Gothic hugs, which meant “mind, soul, or thought.”

 Others have noted the similarity in some senses to German hegen, meaning “to foster, cherish” and, originally, “to enclose in a hedge.” The noun “hug” was originally used in around 1610 to describe a hold in wrestling. It was first used as description of an “affectionate embrace” in the 1650s (“Hug,” Online Etymology Dictionary).

Origins of the Hug

There doesn’t seem to be a clear origin or explanation for where or when the act of hugging began. It seems to be one of those instinctive acts that humans share with primates to express love, consolation, and comfort. The word “hug” is simply a semantic method to express an ancient, emotional response.

Obama Greets Peres Recent political leaders half hug and half clutch each other’s arms known as a “presidential embrace” In battle, hugging and handshaking were first started as a way of showing your enemy you weren’t going to kill them because you had no visible weapons in your hands or on your body. You could get close enough to strangle someone in a hug—but if your hands were kept strapped to the back of someone else by your arms, then you’d present no danger. That’s why recent presidential candidates half hug and clutch each other’s arms at a debate as a way of showing they come armed only with words (Roddey). The first time the word “hug” itself was used was in the early16th century to describe a wrestling move where one wrestler wraps his arms tightly around his opponent’s chest and arms (“Hug,” The Free Dictionary).

Tree Huggers

One of the most interesting uses of the word “hug” comes from the term “tree hugger.” The idea of tree hugging began in India around 1730 when the maharajah wanted to build a new palace in the village of Jalnadi (now known as Khejarli), on the outskirts of the city of Jodhpur, which was also the home of the Bishnoi people. Trees are sacred to the Bishnois, who worship nature, and they forbid the felling of trees. The village also happened to be the home of Khejri trees (Prosopis cineraria), which were so valuable in the region that they were called “wonder trees” and “kings of the desert.”

Prosopis Cineraria Amrita Dev, an Indian woman, became the first tree–hugger when she wrapped herself around a precious Khejri tree to keep it from being cut down by the maharajah around 1730 As the legend goes, a female villager named Amrita Devi noticed the maharajah’s servants preparing to cut down the precious Khejri trees. She responded by wedging herself between the men and a tree, wrapping her arms and legs around it and hugging it with all her might. She said she would offer her head if it would save one tree (Carey). The maharajah’s loggers responded by chopping her head off with an axe. Three girls followed her example, and soon Bishnois from other villages joined the protests—and by the time the maharajah intervened, 353 people had been murdered by axe. He subsequently issued a decree protecting the land from future logging or harm, and today logging and hunting in Bishnoi villages is still prohibited (Sennert).

In the 1970s, a group of peasant women in northern India, who called themselves Chipkos—meaning “to cling”—followed the example of the Bishnois, and many sources claim the “tree hugging” movement was born as part of peaceful resistance to prevent the Indian lumber industry from destroying the native forests. These women literally hugged trees. Their tactic came to be known as tree satyagraha (truth insistence), which spread across India, ultimately forcing reforms in forestry and a moratorium on tree felling in the Himalayan regions (Farrell).

The term “tree hugger” itself first appeared in 1965, in a newspaper article discussing a battle in Appleton, Wisconsin, between the “tree huggers and the city” (ibid). The Oxford English Dictionary states that the term has been used negatively to refer to a person who is more concerned about the environment than about people. And Meister and Japp agree that the label “tree huggers” has been used mainly as a negative epithet. Tree hugging is now commonly practiced as a gesture of environmental protest and has been incorporated into green spiritualist practice (Milton).

The “O” in XOXO

Hugs and Kisses It is theorized that O came to signify a hug in "XOXO" as it looks like an embrace or union of bodies The hug has also long been used in writing to symbolize the physical act on paper. For centuries, the Latin and Western European countries have been associated with their typical greeting of the abrazo (“hug or embrace”). This was not originally a term to describe the physical act of a hug, though; the Spanish originally used abrazo to close a letter in writing, especially if the letter was friendly or less formal. The following endings might be used: “Un abrazo” or “Un fuerte [strong] abrazo,” which had the similar intention of the later American “Hugs and Kisses” or “XOXO” (Epstein).

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first recorded uses of a kiss to British curate and naturalist Gilbert White in a 1763 letter which ended, “I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater Noster and Ave Maria, Gil White” (ibid). The Xs in White’s letter could possibly mean kisses, but it more likely means blessings. Stephen Goranson, a Duke University researcher, states: “Their juxtaposition with Ave Maria is similar to Daniel Defoe’s use of 'X' in Robinson Crusoe,” which was published in 1719 and refers to crosses as blessings. He goes on to add that blessings and kisses have been intertwined for all of history (ibid).

Less is known how the O came to signify a hug. Some theories state that it looks like an embrace or the union of bodies and that the X and O together form a kiss on a face. The late Leo Rosten, in his 1968 book Joys of Yiddish, suggested that the O may have evolved from a signature. When Jewish immigrants arrived in America, they could not write in Latin Script and they refused to sign the entry forms with the customary X, which they interpreted as a crucifix and a sign of oppression. Instead they drew an O, leading immigration inspectors to call anyone who signed with an O a kikel (“circle” in Yiddish) or kikeleh (“little circle”), which was shorted to “kike” and eventually took on a derogatory meaning (ibid).

It is unclear how X joined O, and there is one theory that says it is based on the game of tic-tac-toe, which has roots in ancient Egypt and Rome and was played with pebbles or coins until it moved to paper. David Parlett, author of The Oxford History of Board Games, believes that the X and O are “two of the simplest contrasting symbols, easy to master by illiterate people,” although he is unsure how tic-tac-toe’s cross and circle could have metamorphosed into hugs and kisses (ibid).

The earliest mention of X and O used together may have come from a letter published to the Fort Pierce News Tribune in Florida, dated November 22, 1960. “Dear Santa, How are you? I am fine…Will you please bring me a play rifle and…. Love & Kisses XOXOXO Davy Mikey & Cheryl” (ibid).

Alongside countless newly minted emoticons, celebrities like Arianna Huffington and Diane Sawyer continue to sign their emails with “XO.” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, states that the X and O are important because they show enthusiasm, are expressive, and show sincerity. Like the physical actions the letters symbolize, X and O attach a warmth and sincerity to women’s words (ibid).

Hugging Machine

Hug Machine Inventor Temple Grandin invented the hugging machine in 1965 to soothe people who live with psychological disorders such as autism The hug has always been seen as an “intrinsically organic gesture that could never be replaced by a machine, but in 1965, a hug machine was invented.” (Carey). Its inventor, Temple Grandin, grew up on her aunt’s farm in Wisconsin. Born with autism, she didn’t speak a word until she was four. She was fascinated with the cows which, when they were being medicated or vaccinated, were put into a squeeze chute. Some seemed to calm right away. Grandin would become uncomfortable and overstimulated by a hug from a person—but she also craved “pressure stimulation,” which calmed and relaxed her.

To resolve this dilemma, she invented what is known as the hug machine, or squeeze box. It was made out two hinged sideboards, each four by three feet with thick, soft padding. They formed a V-shape, with a complex control box at one end and heavy-duty tubes leading to an air compressor. The user lies or squats between the sideboards, for as long or short a period as desired. Using pressure exerted by the air compressor and controlled by the user, the sideboards apply deep pressure stimulation evenly across the lateral parts of the body.

Temple Grandin became a source of inspiration for those living with psychological disorders such as autism. Her hug machine is still used in therapy practices today, primarily as a relaxing technique for people with autism and autism-spectrum disorders. Grandin herself went on to publish significant research in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy about the machine’s utility in reducing tension, and when Time magazine asked her in 2010 if she still used it, she shook her head and replied, “I’m into hugging people now” (ibid).

The Hugging Saint

Amma Known as the Hugging Saint, Amma has hugged over an estimated 33 million people worldwide, and she has hugged up to 50,000 people in a day For Mata Amritanandamayi (née Sudhamani Idamannel and also known simply as Amma), hugging is a form of worship (ibid). She was born into a low caste family in the fishing village of Parayakadavu in the district of Kerala in India on September 27, 1953. Her parents remarked that she was born into the world smiling, not crying, and her skin was dark blue. She grew up very different from other children in that she was very spiritual, and it is said that even at age 5, she was spending much of her time singing devotional prayers. When she was 9, her parents sent her off to school, and she was given the worst jobs to do, which she did gladly. As she grew older, her mystical experiences intensified, and she began to gain followers who were attracted to her spirituality. Her devotees often said she took on the form of Sri Krishna, and many miraculous healings have been attributed to her (Pettinger).

Amma is uneducated in the traditional sense, but she teaches her followers about the ancient traditions of Yoga and Vedanta. Her main teaching has been to reject the false sense of ego and focus on the divine, true nature of man. During the past 35 years, her main focus has been to travel the world and offer her unconditional love to people from all walks of life. It is estimated that Amma has hugged over 33 million people worldwide (Kuruvilla). On some days, she has hugged up to 50,000 people in a day, working for up to 20 hours.

She does not try to convert people to her religion and says that her “sole mission is to love and serve one and all,” and people claim to feel vibrations on the stage when they hug her. They have come to see that her hugs are not just physical but are spiritually powerful, and her touch is a blessing. Because she hugs for hours, her stamina and person seem almost otherworldly. It is that endurance that gives her the magnetism people call saintly (Carey).

Free Hug Movement

In 1999, Bernard and Delia Carey started an extraordinary social movement by washing people’s feet in New York City. They put a sandwich board sign out on the street and waited for people to come in, no donations, and no fuss (ibid). People started getting curious and stopping in to the little storefront on East 10th Street, and before long, the Careys were offering hugs, bandages, and money. The biggest letters outside the store were the ones that read “FREE HUGS,” though.

What began as a storefront whim became an artistic experience that was drawing a quirky community. Customers referred to it as “performance,” but the Careys wanted do something bigger and more impactful. They delved into the idea of “relational aesthetics” that was traced back to the 1960s' group Fluxus and included performances by artists like Yoko Ono.

They began taking pictures and videotaping their experiences and, before long, their “Free Hugs” became a national news story. They were asked to be in the Whitney Biennial Art Show in New York City, where they gave out hugs and were interviewed on the morning news program Good Morning America. The Biennial happened in 2002, in the wake of 9/11, and the Careys’ exhibit served as a public source of comfort for still-grieving Americans. Most importantly, they were able to get the public to think of hugs as a service, something that people could give and receive much more from in return.

In May 2004, a man named Jonathan Littman began giving out hugs in Washington Square Park in New York City every Sunday under a sign labeled “Free Hugs.” He also traveled to Germany and did the same there as well. He wanted to use his generosity too, more with the people around him (ibid).

Free Hugs Mann Millions of people have been inspired by Juan Mann’s Free Hugs video on You Tube, which is set to the music of the band Sick Puppies One month later, in June 2004, Juan Mann gave out hugs for the first time in Sydney, Australia, in exactly the same way Littman had done. But Juan included a viral video as well. The band Sick Puppies created a music video out of his travels that became an instant Internet success. Juan Mann began giving out hugs because he wanted to be hugged. Millions of people have watched his video, and although Mann retired from the Free Hug movement in 2009, the video continues to inspire (ibid).

Hugs Are Healthy

Two researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a study to determine if the warmth and closeness of a hug can actually make a difference in physiological terms. Can it lower blood pressure and help to ease the onslaught of challenges to the body on a daily basis?

In the 2003 study, two groups of adults who were either married or had been living together were chosen. They were divided into two groups. In group one, there were 100 adults who were told to hold hands for at least 10 minutes while viewing a pleasant video. After the video, they were told to hug for 20 seconds. In group two, there were 85 adults who were told to just sit quietly and not do anything for that same amount of time. When that was done, all participants were asked to stand and briefly describe something that had irritated or bothered them. Then they had their blood pressure or heart rate tested. For the group of non-huggers, their heart rate and blood pressure were significantly higher than the huggers, and women seemed to be even more affected than men (ibid).

Couple Hugging A 2004 study by the American Psychosomatic Society found that couples who are happy and hug more have higher levels of oxytocin in their blood Another study, by the American Psychosomatic Society in 2004, focused on various levels of oxytocin in the blood. They looked at 76 couples who were either married or in long-term, cohabiting relationships. The partners or spouses who described their relationship as happy had significantly higher levels of oxytocin compared with the couples who described themselves as unhappy. In the study, each couple was asked to talk privately for five minutes about circumstances that drew them closer together, watch a romantic video, and then hug each other. During these warm contacts, women experienced significantly higher levels of oxytocin compared to men. One of the study's conclusions was that the higher oxytocin levels protect the emotional stability of women (ibid).

Hugging has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on stress levels in the body. Blood pressure, heart rate, and oxytocin levels are all stress related, and if the stress levels remain low, then the others factors improve as well.

Virtual Hugs

Though there is nothing physical about them, social networks do share some of the same goals as the Free Hug movement: friends and community. Through services like Skype where people can videoconference with anyone anywhere in the world, the experience of giving of hug, although there was nothing physical about it, made people happier and had them laughing and smiling (ibid). Services like Facebook include such options as a “poke” as well as a “hug.” The virtual world program Second Life (which is for adults) includes the option to create a gesture for a hug for the avatar.


On February 14, 2010, Jeff Ondash gave out 7,777 hugs. He is also the world record holder for the most hugs given out in an hour, according to Guinness World Records. In just one hour, he gave out 1,205 hugs (ibid). Another powerful recent image of hugging came from Pittsburgh in 2010 where the G20 summit was being held. The first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gave out hugs instead of the traditional handshake when she greeted the leaders of other nations. The only man she did not hug was Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who looked rather peeved in subsequent photos.

Able to bring even world leaders together in overtures of friendship, hugs can physically say so much more that words cannot express. While we may not be able to trace the actual history of the hug, the physical action is a near universal expression of a desire humans have to connect, comfort, embrace, and celebrate with one another.

-- Posted February 9, 2015


 Carey, Brainard and Delia Carey. 2012. The Art of Hugging: A Heartwarming Guide to Everyone’s Favorite Gesture of Love. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing.

 Epstein, Nadine. “A Whole Lot of History Behind ‘X’ and ‘O,’ Kiss and Hug.” The Washington Post. February 13, 2014. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 Farrell, Bryan. “Where Did the Phrase ‘Tree-Hugger’ Come From?” Earth Island Journal. January 12, 2012. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 “Hug.” The Free Dictionary. Updated 2014. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 “Hug.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Updated 2014. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 Keating, Kathleen. 1983. The Hug Therapy Book. Center City, MN: Hazelden Press.

 Kuruvilla, Carol. “Amma ‘The Hugging Saint’ Embraces New York.” New York Daily News. July 12, 2013. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 Meister, Mark and Phyllis M. Japp, eds. 2002. Enviropop: Studies in Environmental Rhetoric and Popular Culture. Westport, CT: Praeger.

 Milton, Kay. 1993. Environmentalism: The View from Anthropology. London, UK: Routledge.

 Peters, Mark. “The History of Tree-Hugging and the Future of Name-Calling.” Grist. October 12, 2006. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 Pettinger, Richard. “Amma—The Hugging Saint.” Ezine Articles. January 11, 2007. Accessed October 1, 2014.

 Roddey, Bill. “A History of Hugging.” The Patriot News. Updated October 16, 2002. Accessed October 2, 2014.

 Sennert, Kate. “A Defiant Embrace. The Origins of Tree Hugging.” Wilder Quarterly. May 6, 2013. Accessed October 1, 2014.