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.

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.

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.


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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Why do we call them headphone “jacks”?

Apple turned many heads this week when it announced it’s scrapping the headphone jack in the iPhone 7. The jack, that little socket you plug your headphones into and sometimes the word for the plug itself, has had a good run: It’s a durable bit of technology dating back to the 19th century. But why we call it a jack is much, much older.

Jack and jack plug. Image by Pascal Thauvin, courtesy of freeimages.com.

jack of all trades

Since at least the late 1300s, jack has been naming all sorts of mechanical devices. One prominent contrivance is the Jack of the clock, simply called Jack at the end of 1400s. This was a little, mechanized man who strikes the bells on old clocks. Other early jacks include a turner of a roasting spit, a wooden frame for sawing, and various rollers and winches. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds all these uses in the 1580s.

Many such jack technologies proliferated in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, like the lifting-jack, which we still use, essentially, in changing a flat tire today. This is why we jack up, or “raise,” prices. Jack was first used of telephony, at least according to the OED’s account, in 1891, referring to that special electrical socket Apple is obsolescing. Plugging this socket is a jack plug, or now just jack, attested by 1931. Headphone actually predates both of these, appearing by 1882.

Early on, many of these jacks replaced the work of a man. Think of Jack of the clock, whose automatized timekeeping saved the services of some clocktower attendant in addition to providing an impressive, ornamental display of technological progress. During this period of history, Jack was a widespread nickname for any old regular guy. (We do this today with our Average Joe, Dear John, and even hip-hop’s New Jack.) And so the various tools and technologies took the name of the man they stood in for: Jack.

Jacks are truly an everyman in the English language. We see them in jackass, jack of all trades, jack-o’-lantern, lumberjack, Union Jack, you don’t know jack, and jackpot, whose jack, as I previously discussed, answers to the card suit.

Jack today, gone tomorrow

Now, in English, Jack has long been a pet form of the name John, historically one of the most common first names for men. We have evidence for it in the 1300s. Some think this Jack was a homegrown nickname, but most etymologists think Jack actually comes from the French name Jacques, also used as a familiar, often contemptuous name for a common man or peasant.

Jacques is ultimately a French form of name Jacob: Latin’s Iacōbus yields Jacques (and James), the Greek Ἰάκωβος (Iakobos) yields Iacōbus, and the Hebrew יַעֲקֹב (Ya’akōbh, among other renderings) supplies all of the above.

Scholars have given a few interpretations to the meaning of Jacob. One is that it comes from the Hebrew word for “heel” (ʿaqeb, approximately) also carrying a sense of “to follow.” For this, they point to the biblical Jacob, younger twin to Esau. The Book of Genesis describes his birth: “And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob.” 

But in a later passage, Jacob takes on a more metaphorical meaning. When Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, Esau cries: “Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.” Here, Jacob means “supplant.”

Jacob supplanted Esau. Jack supplanted Jacob. The mechanical jack supplanted Jack the workman. And Apple’s AirPods are supplanting the headphone jack. It’s as if the technology was etymologically bound to be replaced.      

And the Oscar goes to…Boycott?

All eyes are on the big name at the Academy Awards tonight: Boycott.

Yes, this year, the Oscars are in the spotlight not as much for who’s nominated, but for who’s not. Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Smith are boycotting Hollywood’s big night to protest the conspicuous lack of diversity in the actors and filmmakers the Academy nominated in its top categories, trending in social media as #OscarsSoWhite.

Like the top prize, the Oscar, or “God’s spear,” as I discussed in a previous post on the award’s name, boycott derives from a name.


First cited in 1880, boycott, as the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology elucidates:

is an allusion to Captain Charles Boycott, 1832-1897, an English land agent over Irish tenant farmers, who refused to lower rents in hard times and was subjected to an organized campaign by local people who refused to have any dealings with him…The practice was widely instituted towards others and the term was quickly adopted by newspapers in almost all European and many non-European languages.

Barnhart goes on to provide examples of the adoption, which notably includes the Japanese boikotto.

Boycott‘s ostracism featured tenants’ refusal to work his farms and businesspersons’ refusal to trade with him. The eponym later extended to various protestatory refusals, such as like the one we are seeing this Oscar night.

What a way to be remembered, huh? As we saw recently, Bork was borked. Boycott was boycotted. And I don’t think we really want to give him one of those golden statuettes.

A -cott-age industry?

Boycott inspired girlcott, a boycott carried out by women (who must have felt the word was simply mansplaining protests).

The Oxford English Dictionary dates this playful formation, girlcott, to  1884. It features -cott as an early example of a “libfix”,  a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky for this fun and fascinating phenomenon we see in inventions like Snowzilla or Carmageddon, both of which make people take a staycation. This -cott, like –zilla, –(a)geddon, –cation, and –splain doesn’t have an inherent meaning like the suffix -ness or -ly do, for example, but is liberated from a word and affixed to new coinages. Hence, Zwicky’s libfixBoycott is a family name, likely taken from where the family’s from in England.

This -cott, of course, should not be confused with mascot (a French term for “talisman” that may be relate to mask), ascot (named for Ascot, a city near Windsor, Berkshire in England remembered for the fashions worn at a big race held there), or Epcot (the Disney World theme park, “Experimental Prototype of Community of Tomorrow”).

If you support Trump’s recent call to boycott Apple over its refusal to decrypt a phone used by one of the San Bernardino’s shooters, as I recently touched on in my post on crypt, you might want to…orangecott it?

And #OscarsSoWhite, to circle back, might not seek to boycott the red carpet but blackcott it – or diversitycott it.

m ∫ r ∫

Tales from the “crypt”

Apple’s encryption has been at the center of a heated debate over privacy and security these past weeks. A federal judge ordered the company to unlock the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters last December to aid the FBI’s investigation, but they have not complied: Apple maintains that such decryption would compromise the data of millions of its users. As the fight continues, we’ll see whether Apple will crack – or keep its code. In the meantime, let’s crack the etymological of code of the word at the center of this debate: crypt.


A 17th-century Italian grotesque ornament drawing. Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1934.


Telecommunications has been using encrypt since the 1950s, with encryption appearing shortly thereafter. Decrypt has been in use earlier, however; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites it in the 1930s to refer more generally to the solution of a cryptogram, “something written in code.” Decrypt’s specifically technological sense followed encrypt.

The OED indicates encrypt and decrypt – these verbs for the conversion of data in and out of codes – were formed after cryptogram, which is dated to the early 1800s. Cryptogram is itself formed after cryptography, a word evidenced all the way back in the 1640s in a reference to Cryptomenytices et Cryptographiae Libri IX. This 1624 text on the art of ciphers (steganography) was written by Gustavus Selenus, a pseudonym, appropriately enough, for Duke August II of Brunswick. Shakespeare’s First Folio was published a year before and, as some will have it, “truthers” claim Selenus’ work reveals Francis Bacon as the true author of the plays.

As we see in cryptogram and cryptography, crypto- has been a not-so-secret word-forming prefix in the English language. The earliest record of the prefix comes in the late 16th century form of cryptoporticus, a reference to the Latin architectural term for a covered, semi-subterranean passageway, usually with windows looking up aboveground.

Nineteenth-century scientists were fond of it: they coined the likes of cryptocephalous and cryptozygous. Cryptozoology joins the “secret” club in the 1960s, though.

Nineteenth-century political and religious leaders liked crypto-, too. We see crypto-Catholic (a secret Catholic) and a whole host of similar conspiratorial coinages: crypto-Christian, crypto-Jesuit, crypto-Jew, crypto-deist, crypto-heretic, even crypto-Fenian, among others. From what I can tell, these formations are indebted to crypto-Calvinism, a 16th German concern about Calvinists acting as Lutherans, the OED tells me. These formations also anticipate the crypto-fascist and crypto-communist (later, just crypto) of the 1920s and 1930s.

Today, I imagine closet has largely outed crypto- in its “secret” appellations, but I could see some currency for crypto-liberal, crypto-conservative, or even crypto-establishment in today’s political climate.

Cryptic crosswords 

Now, crypto- ultimately derives from Greek. Etymologists cite two forms: the Hellenistic Greek κρυπτο- (krypto-), directly responsible for the English prefix, and the more common ancient Greek κρυψι- (krupsi-). Both conceal κρυπτός (kryptos), “hidden,” from a verb, κρύπτειν (kryptein), “to hide.” Indo-European scholars dig yet deeper, reconstructing *krau-, a verb of a similar action.

For the first prefix, krypto, the OED mentions a one-off Greek κρύπτορχος (kryptorkhos), “with undescended testicles”; this –ορχος is related to orchid, the beautiful flowers whose roots suggested testicles to its namers.

Latin fashioned Greek’s kryptos into crypta, an “underground passage” or “covered galley,” possibly even a “vault” or “crypt” in the modern sense. English’s first crypt, which the OED dates at least to 1475, was a “cave” or “cavern,” its meaning of “underground burial place” coming a century or so after. Cryptic begins naming the mysterious in the late 1600s, the crossword puzzle in the late 1900s.

With Morris Travers, chemist William Ramsay fashioned the element krypton in 1898 after the Greek, apparently because this noble gas  was “hidden” in a liquid he was studying. A friend of Ramsay suggested the name Eosium, for the Greek for “dawn” due to the brilliant spectral lines the element emits. The radioactive kryptonite, mined from planet Krypton, may have been so inspired by the element name when it first threatened Superman in the 1940s.

“Hidden” in plain sight

There are yet other cognates of crypt I was very surprised to find hiding in the word: grotto, a “small, pleasant cave” or cave-like place, and undercroft, a “vaulted chamber,” usually under a church. Grotto, via Italian, and undercroft, via Germanic languages, both go back to the Latin crypta.

Grotto and undercroft still evoke for me special places in my Catholic school days. My grade school, St. Mary’s, housed a shrine to its patron saint in a cool, shady cove between school buildings we called the grotto. From what I gather, shrines to Mary were erected by worshippers in grotto-like places, especially along pilgrimage roots. Underneath the church was the undercroft. My school deemed this crypt-like place a great place to house the kindergarten classrooms. These words are charged with powerful memories, peculiar and distinct places they are, with peculiar and distinct names.

Grotto, as indicated, comes from the Italian grotta, which derives grottesca, a kind of “cave painting,” or pittura grottesca. Some speculate these were murals found on the walls in the chambers of Roman buildings, which became known as grotte during their excavation. Grottesca yielded the French crotesque and, ultimately, the English grotesque. At first, a grotesque was a sort of fantastical and pastoral painting of human-animal forms, whose fanciful distortions propelled to the word’s later evolution to “bizarre,” “absurd,” “disturbing” – a term, to bring it full circle, some may use to describe Apple’s refusal to decrypt, others the FBI’s insistence on a backdoor.

m ∫ r ∫