The X Files? Xbox? X Men? It’s only really been in the last twenty years or so that the letter X has really enjoyed a more mellowed existence. Prior to this it was known more for X-rated films, the X label on poison bottles…
Its use is relatively scarce as well; in printed English, it ranks roughly 2nd or 3rd to last, just above Z. As an initial letter, X comes last.
The most common use for X is its long-established roles as denoting unknown or unrevealed mathematical quantities. Remember algebra? The first use of X in this way was by Descartes in 1637. He assigned the letters X, Y and Z to symbolise any three unknowns in a geometric equation. The German physicist, Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen discovered a strange new radiation and named it X-ray as he didn’t know what it contained.
Rate the X
X is also used in legal documents to censor somebody’s name or guard against branding. In 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America introduced lettered ratings. This was in order to inform cinema audiences of the level of picture they were going to see. It included any instances of sex, profanity or violence. Of the more adult end of the film spectrum, R stood for ‘restricted’. Whilst X was reserved for ‘extreme’ films, more on a par with pornography. In this way, the letter X, more or less overnight in the American consciousness, came to symbolise explicit, uninhibited sex.
Most modern English words that start with X derive from ancient Greek, for example xylophone, xanthine (yellow), xiphoid (sword-shaped). In these X-words, the X, while representing the Greek letter ksi which sounded like ‘ks’, has softened into a ‘z’ sound. Where the X falls in placements other than the first letter, it has retained its true Greek sound, for instance exodus, lexicon and oxygen.
X marks the spot
Since the end of the nineties the X has come into its own, shedding its previous shady reputation. It came to represent ‘computer magic and control’ and ‘cutting edge’. Companies such as X-Collaboration, Xpoint Technologies and the games consoles Xbox, which emblazons an X across the top its exterior casing. This would have been laughably obscene in the early 70s…
Of course, we all know the most common usage for the letter X now and that is signing off at the end of letters or text messages with a kiss or three…this actually originated in the Middle Ages where the population was largely illiterate, In lieu of a signature they would write an X and then kiss the X as a promise to stick to the agreement.