This past week, TIME magazine’s talented Katy Steinmetz interviewed me for a fantastic piece on the challenges of using words that have offensive histories, such as bulldozer. (Steinmetz also interviewed me back in 2016, you may recall, about the fascinating Japanese linguistics behind words like Pokémon and karaoke.)
Catch up on my writing for the wonderful Emojipedia, too. This month, I wrote about 😏, or Smirking Face emoji, ever smug and suggestive in its many applications in our digital communication.
The verb smirk, for its part, dates back to the Old English smearcian, which was the go-to word for smile until the latter took over in Middle English. Smirk survived, but with a connotation of self-satisfaction. Cognates to smirk are not found in other Germanic languages, but smirk and smile do appear to be related in some way.
What are all those letters we don’t say doing in the word knight? Why is talked the past tense of talk but sang is the past tense of sing? What’s up with m in whom and how come we eat beef but raise cow?
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.
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—andtogether Χριστός was abbreviated to its initial Xρ 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.
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.
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 Xin 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.
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.
In lieu of a feature word origin today, I wanted to point you to some of my other etymological goings-on around the web. I’m very pleased to announce that I have two new series on the Oxford Dictionaries blog debuting this week.
First, a big thanks to everyone who has taken the Mashed Radish reader survey so far. I’ve received some incredibly valuable feedback so far. If you haven’t had a chance to complete it yet, please take just 5 minutes to do so. Your responses make a difference and mean a lot to me. You can find the survey here. In another week, I’ll be contacting the randomly selected winner who will get to pick the word for an upcoming post.
Second, a writing update. Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Atlas Obscura about a mysterious statuette perched on many windowsills in Dublin, Ireland. If you’re not familiar with Atlas Obscura, check them out. A leading travel and exploration website, Atlas Obscura is “the definitive guide to the world’s wondrous and curious places.” In some ways, the site is like the travel equivalent of etymology, seeking out all the unusual and unexpected places, people, objects, and stories off the beaten track and hiding right around the corner. Their wide-ranging content takes a linguistic bent, too. Writer Dan Nosowitz has looked into some fascinating place-based language phenomena, like “Why Do Canadians Say ‘Eh’?” and “How a Fake British Accent Took Old Hollywood By Storm.”
Third, don’t forget to stop by Mental Floss, where I continue to contribute etymological trivia. Did you know ratheroriginally meant “more rathe,” with rathe being a now-rare word meaning “quick” or “eager”? Or consider compute, which first meant “to prune back” in Latin. Swing by Nameberry, too, where I recently dove into the history of the name Oscar.
Finally, I was delighted to guest-host another episode of the Shakespeare-on-filmpodcast As We Like It. This time, we talked about Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production of Hamlet. Our conversation was nearly – nearly – as epic as his film.
More etymology is coming your way, as always, on Friday.
Oh yeah: I missed a few important milestones recently.
Mashed Radish turned three earlier this month. Politics inspired quite a few posts – Donald Trump especially – this past year. While politics may divide us, a shared love of words certainly brings us together. Like animals, which also prompted quite a lot of writing. You know, I think this blog could definitely do with more animal posts.
I’ve also reached over 10,000 followers. Wow. Gosh. Thanks, everyone, for your continued – or new – interest, readership, comments, and support.
Speaking of support, I’ve a third milestone comping up which I’ll be sure not to miss: my second wedding anniversary. I really need to thank my wife for all the support she’s given and sacrifices (yes, etymologies have their costs) she’s made for this project.
Now, how’d the first two pass me by? Well, I moved to Dublin, for one. For another, my head’s been absolutely stuffed with Shakespeare, whose complete works I’ve been reading and writing about at Shakespeare Confidential. I’ve also been regularly contributing to Slate’s Lexicon Valley, Strong Language, and Oxford Dictionaries. Etymologies open doors to the past, as I like to say. And, if three years is any measure, to the future as well.
But I can’t sign off without a word origin, can I? So, how about a quick etymology of etymology?
We actually have evidence of the word etymology in a Latin form in Old English, though we see it Anglicized around the late 1300s, early 1400s . English gets the word in part from French (ethimologie) and in part directly from Latin (etymologia). Latin, in turn, borrowed the word from the Greek ἐτυμολογία (etymologia). If you’ll allow me to jump over some intermediary derived forms, the Greek ultimately joins ἐτεός (eteos, “true”) and λόγος (logos, “word”). Some think the Greek eteos is related to the Old English soð (“truth”), which, if you’ve been reading your Shakespeare, you might recognize in soothsayer or the mild oath Forsooth!
Historically then, we can understand etymology as the analysis of a word on the basis of its literal, or true, meaning. We should be careful not to commit the etymological fallacy, however, which posits that only the original meaning of a word is its right sense. Wrong. Words change. That’s in part why I love etymology. But we don’t want to be too, too careful, because I think we can glean insights in those ancient meanings still relevant to us today – and because I wouldn’t have a blog with a third anniversary to mark!