What’s so mystifying about the letter “X”? For starters, the swastika X—or cross—has come to symbolize the very essence of evil. And the letter, as signified by the skull and crossbones, portrays death by poison. Yet it also represents virtue and eternal life in being employed as an abbreviation for Christ in Xmas, and for Christianity generally. Such a curious dichotomy only hints at the many convoluted complexities of a letter seemingly “designed” to beguile us with contradictory connotations.
In this post, I’ll attempt the unusually challenging task of organizing the various meanings of this strangest, and most alluring, of letters. “X” may take up less space in the dictionary than any of its 23 compatriots but, in terms of its diverse uses, it’s a letter that defines, well, overcompensation. For it seems, waywardly, to want to sprawl out in every direction imaginable. As such, it rigorously resists all attempts to restrain it. Nonetheless, I’ve sought here to somehow “rein it in,” to make this piece as comprehensible as possible, so as not to overwhelm the reader with the almost dizzying functions that, over the centuries, the letter has taken on.
Because it’s been employed in so many fields—from algebra, to genetics, to aerospace, to sex and spirituality—X’s abundant meanings have almost everything to do with the context that engages it. So in my efforts to categorize its disparate functions, I’ve struggled to find groupings that might accommodate its perversely “wandering,” or unstable, nature. Which is why some of my categories may seem arbitrary, and also why my last segment highlights its heterodoxy through the grabbag heading of “miscellaneous symbology.” For unquestionably, the broad array of meanings associated with “X” make all the other letters of the alphabet seem mundane—or puny—by comparison.
Even within contexts—say, the field of sports—“X’s” meaning can vary substantially. So, for example, a strike in baseball is not a good thing for a batter (and a strikeout even worse). But in bowling, a strike is a very good thing, for it means knocking down all 10 pins—or should I say "X pins" since, after all, X is the Roman numeral for 10. Moreover, an overall score of all X’s represents nothing short of bowling perfection (comparable to batting a 1,000!). Finally, though, my proper function here isn’t to resolve the many incongruities surrounding this most captivating of letters but, more modestly, simply to enumerate them.
So, here goes:
1. UNKNOWN VS. KNOWN
A. The Unknown/Nebulous/Ambiguous/Mysterious/Vague/Variable/ Multitudinous . . . and Top Secret (as it relates to a person, place, or thing)
So we have:
In algebra, X as the variable—vs. a constant: we may be asked to solve for X: it’s literally a puzzle—or unknown—meant to be deciphered. Jonathon Green, a lexicographer writing on X, wittily remarks that it “torments students of mathematics at all levels, from the common multiplication symbol in arithmetic to the more complicated X of algebraic equations”;
B. The Known/ Specific/Precise/Measurable/Identifiable—or Clearly Identifying Something, and Filling in a Blank (where X has an unmistakable, delimited meaning)
So, in these instances, we have X as:
Indicating something's relative strength—as in the strength of an ale (Don Equis); XXX moonshine, with the number of X’s marking how many times a particular batch ran through the still; and XXXX is also a logo for a brand of Australian beer (!).
To sum up here, I’ll quote David Barringer, who states:
The resonance of X as a signifier of mysterious precision [my italics to accentuate his "revealing" oxymoron] explains why it’s so common in commerce and branding. The Jaguar X-Type. The 2008 Mitsubishi Evolution X. The X2000, Sweden’s high-speed train. The X-Acto knife. Mac OS X. The X game for Nintendo’s Game Boy. Microsoft’s Xbox console. Vitamin Water XXX (with three antioxidants). The X is a California roller coaster (the seats swivel around). Product X is a protein powder for bodybuilders. The X-Vest adds weight for exercise. [Whew!]
2. DARING, DANGER, DEATH—AND DEATH DEFEATED
This heading, not entirely distinct from others that follow, emphasizes some of the more “pointed” ways that X has been put to use. So we have:
As already alluded to, as symbolizing fatality in the well-known skull and crossbones emblem;
3. POSITIVE OR GOOD; NEGATIVE, BAD, OR EVIL
Here, too, we have a plethora of possibilities. So my entries are hardly exhaustive and might be “assigned” to other categories as well. For a small sampling:
In looking up prescribed, brand-name medications that begin with the letter “X,” I discovered a site listing over 50 of them (!)—and that doesn’t even include those drugs (prescribed or OTC) whose names contain an X in the middle or end (like Lovenox, Zyprexa, or Sominex). A tiny sampling here would include: Xarelto, Xeljanz, Xenical, Xylocaine, and Xanax (which—“X-wise”—outdoes itself!);
been waiting for?!)
Adding an “O” for a hug (i.e., two individuals “encircling” one another) to an “X,” for a kiss (i.e., two lips “crossing over”), we get XOXO, or kisses and hugs—a basically affectionate symbol, free of any lurid sexual connotations; and also, xxx, typically understood as three little kisses;
X, as it relates not so much to a fond or sentimental attachment but to something far more lustful or passionate, gives us X-rated and the word sex itself. And not only does this usage address the earthier, more animalistic side of our nature, it can also slip into the realm of the naughty, illicit, or forbidden. Symbolizing explicit or graphic sexual content, we have extreme porn designated as XXX. And XXXX has been increasingly showing up to suggest really bold, intense, or outrageous displays of sexual derring-do;
Forex condoms, no longer manufactured, were probably the first XXXX-related product for men;
X has also been used to represent the anus, “the portal of transformation in ritual or key of David sodomy” (see theopenscroll.com); and finally,
5. MISCELLANEOUS SYMBOLOGY
This highly condensed segment can only hint at everything that hasn’t yet been covered. And one irony here is that although X has an almost immeasurable diversity to it, it’s commonly used (as already described) for purposes of measurement (!). So,
X-Files, in the cult hit TV series, represent mysterious, unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena; and
. . . That about completes my "pocket-sized" review of the intriguing letter X. And I hereby predict that—going forward—never will you view the consonant in the same way again (!).
Barringer, D. (2007, Nov. 6). X for all or nothing. Retrieved from http://www.aiga.org/x-for-all-or- nothing.
Bishop, T. (2000, July 3). And you thought X was just another letter. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2000/jul/03/news/cl-47226
Green, J. X-rated: What is so special about the letter ‘X’ (2006, Nov. 6). Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/x-rated-what-is-so-spe...
Meanings of the letter X, esoteric and otherwise. Retrieved from http://www.theopenscroll.com/theEsotericLetterX.htm
What was the original name of the letter X, and how many sounds can it represent? (2011, April 26), Retrieved from http://blog.dictionary.com/letter-x
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© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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