A Brief History of “X”

Yesterday, Apple unveiled the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X, which the company is pronouncing “iPhone Ten.” Ten years ago, Apple transformed the smartphone landscape—and our very lives, for better or worse—with its first very iPhone, hence the Roman numeral X, or 10, in its new mobile moniker. Let’s take a quick look at the history of X, from its birth as a letter and numeral to its spread into everything from Jesus to algebra.

The Roman Numeral X

As noted, X corresponds to the number 10 in Roman numerals. We know the ancient Romans adapted their notational system from the Etruscans, but the deeper roots of the symbols themselves are obscure.

One theory thinks the numerals evolved out of basic tally marks. The Roman numeral I (1) was a simple notch, with every fifth one double-notched, yielding V (5) and every tenth crossed into an X (10).

Another theory thinks the numerals emerged from hand-counting. I represents one finger and V a full hand. If you hold out your hand, you can see how the gap between the thumb and index finger might resemble a V. Hold out two hands for 10 and you can imagine how two V’s, stacked on top of each other, can look like an X.

Whatever their origin, the form of the symbols were adapted to the existing letters in the Latin alphabet—which included letter X.

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Roman numerals marking a seating entrance in the Coliseum (Romewise). 

The Letter X

The ancient Greeks added letter X—called chi, its 22nd letter and our 24th—when they borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. Originally, X represented a kh sound, but certain regional alphabets took to using the symbol as a convenient shorthand for frequent ks combinations in the language. The Etruscans also adopted this convention—and later the Romans, which ultimately made its way into the sound and shape of English’s own X.

The Christ X

The Greek chi is the first letter in Χριστός (Khristos), source of Christ. This epithet literally means “anointed,” a translation of the Semitic messiah; rubbing oil on heads of kings, priests, and other important figures was an ancient custom used to consecrate them.

The second letter Χριστός is rho—ρ and source of r—and together Χριστός was abbreviated to its initial in old manuscripts. This digraph became the Christogram ☧, symbolizing Jesus on various Christian materials and imagery. The shorter shorthand of X for Christ also appears in Xmas, i.e., Christmas, which has been in use since the 1500s. That letter X also resemble a cross, so central to the Christian belief system, further underscores its association with Jesus Christ.

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A chi-rho Christogram from a fourth-century sarcophagus (Wikimedia Commons).

The Kiss X

For Christians, Christ—and his symbol X—evoke faith and fidelity, and apparently medieval Christians, few of whom were literate, used X to sign documents as a token of their veracity.

This custom would also appear related to the modern use of X as a signature or in checkboxes, though we should never underestimate that this practice could just be because X is a distinctive and easy-to-form shape to make. Consider how we have X marks spots, dating to at least the early 1800s, which would seem to originate simply from, well, X marking spots.

Important documents were also sometimes signed with X and sealed with a kiss, and eventually the X-as-kiss emerged in letters and, now, text messages. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites a letter by naturalist Gilbert White in 1763: “I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil. White.” Others think White’s X’s signified blessings, with an 1894 letter from Winston Churchill to his mother marking the earliest known use of the kiss X: “Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC.”

The Algebraic X

X has been standing in for unknown mathematical quantities (variables) since the 17th century, a practice adopted from the French. The OED first cites it in English polymath (pun intended) Jonas Moore’s 1660 mathematical treatise, Arithmetic.

Why X? Contrary to a popular 2012 TED Talk, the OED offers:

The introduction of x, y, z as symbols of unknown quantities is due to Descartes (Géométrie, 1637), who, in order to provide symbols of unknowns corresponding to the symbols a, b, c of knowns, took the last letter of the alphabet, z, for the first unknown and proceeded backwards to y and x for the second and third respectively. There is no evidence in support of the hypothesis that x is derived ultimately from the mediæval transliteration xei of šay’ ‘thing’, used by the Arabs to denote the unknown quantity, or from the compendium for Latin res ‘thing’ or radix ‘root’ (resembling a loosely-written x), used by mediæval mathematicians.

X-tensions

The algebraic X is also responsible for the X in X-ray, a translation of the German X-strahlen (literally “X-beams”). German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered them in 1895 and, taking a page from mathematics, so designated because he didn’t fully understand them.

The “unknown” X also produces that “indefinable quality” of the X-factor, which dates back all the way to the 1930s.

X’s sense of mystery probably led to X’s wide use in naming, from the X-Files to SpaceX, with X here conjuring up a sense of possibility, of wonder. Its associations with words like extreme and extra further lend it to so much branding (e.g., Xbox, Yukon XL, UberX). Names like Gas-X and Clean-X play with X as ex, or “former,” with X perhaps additionally calling up advanced technology, thanks to the letter’s “unknown” (read futuristic) resonances.

The unknown is also uncertain, which produces the X in Generation X, first used in the 1950s for a “generation of young people about whose future there is uncertainty.” Later uses of Generation X play upon valences of X as anxious or edgy for this supposedly disaffected post-Boomer population.

X is also a prominent sound in sex. Perhaps advertisers subliminally take advantage of this connection, but the XXX for pornographic content appears to come from the use of X for motion picture ratings for adult films. (I suspect the choice of X here prudishly alludes to the letter’s connotations with “wrong.”)

XXX, finally, was also used for the potency of various beers in the 19th century, likely leading to the trope of XXX for strong booze in cartoons.

***

Due to some upcoming wedding celebrations (I’m honored to be marrying my sister- and soon-to-be brother-in-law this weekend), Mashed Radish will taking Friday off.

m ∫ r ∫

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It’s time for another Friday etymological news roundup

We had a lot of interesting words in the news this week (some more polite than others). Here’s a news review with—what else?—an etymological twist. 

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Anthony Scaramucci spewed quite the obscenities this week…including the word sycophant? (Pixabay)

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Pepsi, Gibraltar, and other names in the news

From soda ads to ancient military strongholds, this week featured many newsworthy names.  Let’s have a look at a few—and, as always, their origins.

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The Rock of Gibraltar (Pixabay)

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Why isn’t it the “Ide” of March?

We don’t know where the word Ides comes from or why the Ancient Romans used plural words for singular dates. Thanks, Caesar. 

Today is the Ides of March, when Julius Caesar was notoriously assassinated in 44BC. Shakespeare immortalized the date when his soothsayer warned in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar: “Beware the ides of March” (1.2.19). Both of these are true: Caesar was killed on March 15 and a seer, according to ancient historians, did caution him the Roman ruler about the date, though didn’t exactly say Shakespeare’s famous words. But why is this day called the Ides and if it’s just one day, why don’t we call it an Ide?

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The Ides originally marked the full moon each month. (Pixabay)

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Etymology of the Day: Butter

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Image from pixabay.com.

Butter is a bread-and-butter vocabulary word, but it may have spread all the way from ancient Scythia.

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Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?

With roots in ancient astrology and alchemy, the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols may ultimately derive from ancient Greek abbreviations for the names of gods.

This week, President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s “protections for transgender students that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity,” as the New York Times reported

Covering the story, many media outlets have presented images of gender-neutral bathroom signs such as:

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Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant bathroom sign, courtesy of adasigndepot.com

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This symbol, by no means universally embraced by the transgender community, seeks to depict non-binary gender identity by joining the classical sex symbols for male (♂) and female (♀) with a combined male-female one (⚦).

Where do these male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from, anyway?

Continue reading “Where do the male (♂) and female (♀) symbols come from?”

Turkey (repost)

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m busy giving thanks with some family visiting Ireland from the states. So, I thought I would dish up this post from the archives on the holiday’s main attraction: the origin of “turkey.”

It turns out the bird and the country don’t just make for junior high geography jokes or World War I mnemonics. They’re actually connected–dare I say–at the thigh. Well, sort of.

Turkey

Originally, turkey–or turkey-cock (attested in 1541) and turkey-hen, back when our intimacy with where our food comes from necessitated such distinctions–referred to the guinea fowl, a bird native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The guinea fowl (or guineafowl), courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica Online and Index Open.

According to some historians, these African guinea fowl made their way into Europe during the Middle Ages through the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which controlled much of North Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. So-called “turkey merchants” traded the birds and other goods and wares.

In the early 16th-century, Spanish conquistadors imported into Europe what we now think of as the turkey, domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico as early as 800 BC, through the Turkish-dominated Mediterranean, whereupon English-speaking peoples misidentified this bird with the African guinea fowl. (Apparently, corn was also known as turkey corn or turkey wheat due to the same Turkey-by-way-of-Spain-by-way-of-the-New-World channel.) The English name for the American bird stuck, even after the Portuguese brought back–and correctly distinguished from its distant American cousin–guinea fowl from West Africa. Cookbooks from the late 1500s and early 1600s provide evidence that the turkey was already a centerpiece at English feasts, including Christmas.  As for why we came to eat turkey for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Slate offers a digestible bit of food anthropology here.

The Ancient Greeks called the guinea fowl μελεαγρίς, apparently a reference to the Meliagrides, sisters of the Argonaut Meleager, leader of the famed Calydonian boar hunt. Upon Meleager’s tragic death, his sisters were changed into guinea hens. Father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus used the name to classify the genus of the North American bird (Meleagris gallopavo), while the name also identifies a common species of the African guinea fowl (Numida meleagris).

Talking turkey

As for the Turkish? They call the bird hindi. It means “Indian,” and is probably from the French poulet d’inde, or “chicken from India.” Lest we forget, those European explorers–um, conquerors and colonists–did think the New World was Asia. Hence, the West Indies. Hindi and Indian? Yes, they are related. 

And as for TurkeyTurkey is named for the Turks. Romans in the Middle Ages called it Turcus and the Greeks, Tourkos. These come from the Persian national name turk, which folklore glosses as “strength,” but can mean “beautiful youth,” “barbarian,” or “robber.” There is an early Chinese word, tu-kin, referring to a people in the mountains of east-central Asia, who may be connected to ancient ancestors of the Turks.

None of this may be turkey shoot, except for cold turkeyCold turkey–suddenly and completely withdrawing from drugs, originally heroin (and later chocolate), including the intense symptoms therein–is attested in 1910, 1921, or 1936, depending on your source. Thanksgiving leftovers testify that cold turkey requires very little work, thus the original sense of “without preparation.” A cold shoulder (of mutton) is related, “considered a poor man’s dish and thus, perhaps, something one would set out for an unwanted guest with deliberate intention to convey displeasure,” the Online Etymology Dictionary delightfully observes. But let’s not leave our Canadian friends out, where Parson notes cold turkey refers to door-to-door selling or salesmen, perhaps for the same low-prep reasons. 

As for “talking turkey,” Parson defines it as talking “business” or “sense,” with turkey standing for “the substantial and succulent part of a (Christmas) dinner.”

Oh, and that thing dangling from the turkey’s neck? That’s called a wattle. It’s a fleshy caruncle. Birds (and other animals) also have dewlaps and snoods. Apparently, when we named the anatomy of birds, Linnaeus left the room and Dr. Suess took his place. Folds of skin: bon appetit, right?

Whatever’s on your table and whatever you are celebrating this week, enjoy your holiday, give thanks, be safe, and, by all means, avoid fleshy caruncles.

m ∫ r ∫

It’s like comparing apples to…pumpkins?

Autumn means pumpkins. They sit atop our porch steps and grace our desks in miniature. Pumpkin pies cool on our windows sills. Pumpkin-shaped candies overstuff our grocery shelves. Pumpkin spice flavors our lattes – and just about everything else marketers can get their hands on. Let’s carve into this word pumpkin and scoop out all of its timely etymological seeds.

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“Pumpkin.” It’s Greek to me. Image by Kyle Tait, courtesy of www.freeimages.com.

Pumpkin

The earliest record the Oxford English Dictionary finds for pumpkin comes in the form of an insult. In 1647, Nathaniel Ward, a caustic-witted, English-born Puritan who fled to (now) Massachusetts, published a pamphlet opposing the tolerance of other Christian sects, among other topics. In one edition of his screed, called The Simple Cobler of Aggawam in America, Ward bemoans the “pumpkin-blasted brains” of his fellow settlers, whose diet, apparently, depended too much upon this fruit. (Yes, the pumpkin is technically a fruit.) And indeed, Boston, Mass. was nicknamed Pumpkinshire in the 18th century. 

Pumpkin pie, meanwhile, dates to the 1650s. By the 1680s, pumpkin, thanks to its rotundity, was mocking “stupid” people, as was pumpkin-head come centuries later. Pumpkin, of course, was repurposed by the 1900s as a term of endearment. And in 19th-century US slang, saying someone or something was “some pumpkins” was to call them  “important” or “impressive.”

Pumpkin is a variant of pumpion, itself an alteration of pompion. Pompion, attested in the early 1500s, is borrowed from the French pompon, which names a kind of melon. Pumpkins are native to the Americas, so, when English settlers encountered this squash, they likened it to the plump fruit they were more familiar with back home. English speakers ended up fashioning the ending of pompion with -kin, a Germanic-based, diminutive suffix that survives in some surnames like Watkins and handful of words, including napkin.

The French pompon grew out of the Latin pepō, in turn from the Greek πέπων (pepon); both named types of gourds and melons eaten when ripe. Ripe is the key: Greek’s pepon meant “ripe” (or “yellow”), stemming from the verb πέσσειν (pessien), “to cook.” This pessein and cook, believe it or not, were concocted in the same etymological kitchen: they share the Proto-Indo-European root *pekw-, “to cook” or “ripen.” Concocted and kitchen also come from this root, thanks to a series of complicated sound changes that took place long ago.

And inside melon hides the very word pumpkin. Melon is shorted from Latin’s mēlopepō, from the Greek μηλοπέπων (melopepon). Melopepon marries μῆλον (melon) and πέπων (pepon). As for melon? That actually means apple, making melopepon “ripe apple.”

So, pumpkin means “melon,” and melon means “apple.” The ancients really need to get their fruit and veggies sorted out. This Halloween, I think I’ll just stick with candy.

m ∫ r ∫

The winged victory of “Nice”

“Words cannot express,” our leaders begin their remarks on the horrific attack in Nice, France. The carnage shocks us and saddens us into the disbelief of speechlessness. But just as words fail us, we also turn to them to make sense, some sort of sense, of tragedy. So it is with the word Nice, whose origin may raise us up, if in the smallest of ways.

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Nike endures, Nice endures: The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Image © 2014 Musée du Louvre, Philippe Fuzeau.  

Nice

Ancient Greek mariners from Phocaea, on the Aegean Turkey, founded colonies along France’s Mediterranean coast called Massalía, now Marseilles. As far as we know, some Massaliotes battled a neighboring tribe of an Italo-Celtic people, the Ligures, in 350 BC. The Greeks won, and founded a new city there. To commemorate their victory, they named their new settlement Nikaia, honoring their goddess of victory. Her name was Nike.

In addition to personifying the goddess, the word nike, or νίκη in ancient Greek, meant “victory,” including victory in battle, Olympic games, and in more general undertakings. The further roots are unknown; some suggest a pre-Greek origin, others look to an earlier Greek word meaning “strife” or “to quarrel.” Latin rendered Nikaia as Nicaea, which became Nice in French.

Nike lives on, of course, in the athletic brand, but also in Nicholas, which literally means “victory-people.” It joins nike with laos, “people.” Laos often referred to “common people,” and it gives English lay, as in a layperson.

The ancient Greeks wrote of “trim-ankled” Nike, who drove Zeus’ own chariot with her renowned speed and spread her iconic wings over victors in the battlefield. Her wings are still outspread in her famed sculpture in the Louvre, where she greet visitors as The Winged Victory of Samothrace. Her wings are outspread, too, over all the people of her namesake, Nice.

m ∫ r ∫

Of gods and dung: the origins of “ammonia”

Scientists know ammonia as:

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Ancient Egyptians also knew ammonia with their own, equally complex symbols:

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Well, in a manner of speaking. Or writing. The story of the word ammonia is one of modern science and ancient history – and of camel dung and supreme deities.

Ammonia

Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman coined ammonia in 1782 when he identified the substance as the gas that can be obtained from sal ammoniac. Previously, ammonia was called spirit of hartshorn in English, as it was distilled from the nitrogen-laden horns and hooves of animals, which is much more pleasant than other sources of the chemical.

Literally meaning “salt of Ammon,” sal ammoniac is a crystalline salt which was once derived from the dung of camels, apparently. (And you thought ammonia smelled bad.) Ancient Libya had a shrine to Jupiter Ammon. Worshippers would hitch their camels to pay their respects as they passed through the area, known as Ammonia. Meanwhile, their camels would pour their own libations: chemically rich excrement. Enterprising, and adventurous, individuals collected the soiled sands to produce sal ammoniac.

Following their conquest of Northern Africa, the Romans mapped their king of the gods, Jupiter, onto an Egyptian supreme deity, Amun. The Greeks rendered Amun as Ammon, which the Romans adapted for Jupiter Ammon.

Amun was often depicted with a ram’s horn, which paleontologists later thought resembled the spiraling shells of an extinct mollusk, the ammonite. The name Amun, whose hieroglyph is featured above, may derive from a word meaning “invisible” or “hidden” – not unlike the very gas in which his name surprisingly lives on.

m ∫ r ∫