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The Xtraordinary Letter X

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X is an extraordinary letter. Or even Xtraordinary if you’re über-cool. I’d say that a browse through the mercifully short X section of a dictionary is never time wasted. My own discovery of X came when I was looking for Scrabble Animals.

Ed: That’s another story, you promised you wouldn’t article hop, so let’s not go anywhere near board games again, OK?

My Concise OED, which cost me six quid – because I can’t afford the 20 volume set and my bookshelves are groaning – came to me shamefully unbattered. I’ve done my best since to make it feel wanted by anointing it with coffee and doughnut debris. At any rate, there are just two pages allocated to the 24th letter of the Latin alphabet – X. The third most rarely used letter in the English language.

The consonant X (Xi or chi) was a late addition to the Greek language and virtually all the words we have today can be traced back to that ancient culture. But lest we feel at all xenophobic (xenophobia: ‘strange, foreign, stranger’), let’s talk about the things that the letter X on its own stands for.

Ed: I take it we’re not referencing reclining Buddhas or Ozymandias then? And that was a pretty lame segue into xenophobia, if you don’t mind me saying so.

It transforms a mundane 2010 into the rather elegant MMX. It’s the first unknown and the first co-ordinate in algebra and geometry respectively. Should I crack a joke here about first among equals? No, in view of the look the editor’s giving me, maybe not.

X marks the spot; it’s all the kisses you ever wanted; it’s those films you can’t go to as a kid, it’s the mark of those unfortunate people who can’t write; and it’s the mysterious Mister or Miss.

I had an X in my life, my childhood pooch being blessed with the pedigree name ‘Xanthippe of Brittas’. Confusingly, Xanthippe actually means yellow horse. Ungulate references among personal names were common. Hippocrates (horse tamer) – the man wasn’t a vet, was he? and Philippos (horse lover)

Ed: You’re starting something here I hope you’re not damn well going to finish!

Xanthippe was the wife of the illustrious Greek, Socrates. Considerably younger than the great man, legend has it she was a bad-tempered, nagging harridan. The only evidence for this seems to be that she once threw water over her husband. Socrates’ response was to say “After thunder comes rain”. No doubt with a smug little smile on his face. It can’t have been a stroll in the olive groves for Xanthippe, can it? We all know those people, the ones who smile beatifically and say ‘Look, I’m not going to argue with you’. Don’t you want to slap them?

Pretty near the top of page X, you’ll find the Greek word xanthos meaning yellow. I wonder what the -thos means? Immediately, you see, I remember Athos, Porthos and oh yes Aramis, but then we’re not talking aftershave, aren’t we? There’s probably no connection though – Three Yellow Musketeers doesn’t quite have the same ring. Ring – ring of gold – golden yellow…

Ed: You’re free-associating again, I told you, you don’t get to do that while I’m paying for your time!

Skipping by what looks like a rather ghastly skin condition (xanthoma), we reach xanthophyll. Now this I like. You get two words for your money: xanthic (yellowish) & phullon (leaf). And the leaf is the clue. Carrots, tomatoes and those greens your granny dished up for Sunday tea. xanthophyll are any one of those oxygen-carrying carotenoids associated with chlorophyll. Chlorophyll makes leaves green, and carotenoids, which are always present in leaves, turns them yellow. I like this -phyll thing. Phyll -Phil – fill – feuille – feuilles mortes – who said you can’t go from Ancient Greek to Yves Montand in less than five verbivorous steps? And in case you’re interested, Les feuilles mortes was the work of a French surrealist poet, Jacques Prevert, whose Wiki entry contains the splendid line “He was also a cheesecake maker”.

Ed: I fail to see the relevance of this – can you please try to keep on topic?

The Hyphenated X-es (as we call them in Gloucestershire) are a rum lot.

Ed: What? I thought you were from Aberdeen?

The x-axis is the first – oh good lord, it’s geometry again, I was never any good at geometry. And X-ray. Did you know that it’s a translation from the German x-Strahlen and that the nature of the rays that were discovered in 1895 was not fully understood at the time?
The world of music has the splendid xylophone, a percussion instrument used to dazzling effect by Evelyn Glennie in which both the graduated bars and the hammers are made of wood (xulon). The vibraphone, a hi-tech version of the xylophone, has its admirers but I am certainly not one of them.

Where would we be without Xerox? This American company, founded in 1906, takes its brand from the process of xerography, where powder sticks to a Well, let’s just say it’s an incomprehensible process and leave it at that. Oh and this is what dear old OED says.

Ed: I feel that this section was poorly researched – have you started drinking again?

xerography: a dry copying process in which black or coloured powder adheres to parts of a surface remaining electrically charged after exposure of the surface to light from an image of the document to be copied.

Algiers_xebecIn sharp contrast to this, my favourite x-word sails the seven seas. Lateen whips in a northerly gale and the senses are assaulted by the stink of gunpowder and the sweet smell of fine wines. A xebec was a tri-masted vessel with projecting bow stern and convex decks. It was small, fast, highly manoeuverable and much favoured by corsairs.

The etymological route this word took through the world’s languages is as exotic as the spice markets of the East. From the Arabic sabak via Italian sciabecco, it becomes chebec in French but is then influenced by the Spanish xabeque and the Portugese xabeco.

That brings us to the end of the extraordinary letter that is X. Except, by the by, there’s a font called Xanthippe. I knew that girl would have the last word.

wordle of xtraordinary letter X

Illustration by Alan Lennon


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007? Q will see you now

Desmond Llewelyn as Q
How else to begin? Q has always had a certain cachet, a quirkiness unmatched by humbler members of the alphabet. Not least because it’s rarely seen without U. Technically, that’s called a digraph and although in English the two letters have separate identities, in Czech they are conjoined twins – and Turkish simply has no digraphs at all. (Incidentally, my favourite Q in the Bond films has to be Desmond Llewelyn.)

The concise OED (you remember – I can’t afford the shelf space for the Complete) has 9½ pages of quintessential Q words. A good number of those I regard as cheats – words and phrases borrowed from other languages. Personally, I think those people at Oxford get away with murder – they are the keepers of our beautiful mother tongue but really, is anyone keeping tabs on them? They could be Johnny Foreigner infiltrators for all we know.

Ed: Thank you Colonel Barrett-Plympton, we’ll take that under advisement, now if you’ll go with Nurse, I think she has some nice warm milk for you.

Before I go on, I’m going to get something out the way. I’m reluctant to mention it, but not to do so would be boorish. It would also unmask me as a person who has never read any of the Harry Potter books. I am unrepentant. The Q in question is Quidditch, a fictional game from the pen of JK Rowling. I caught a glimpse of a scene in one of the films when they were playing this game. It appeared to be a kind of airborne polo match minus the quaffing of Bolly or long legged girls in pretty frocks ruining their shoes on Smith’s Lawn. Couldn’t see the point myself.

Ed: You’re going to alienate a lot of our readers with this paragraph, you do know that, don’t you? I mean, how can you NOT have read Harry Potter?

Talking of Her Majesty the Queen, have you ever considered how many things will have to be changed upon her demise? We’re not just talking about the carpets at Sandringham and the thorny question of what will Camilla be called. Royal warrants by the thousand must be revised and all those pumped up lawyers will cease to be QCs and become KCs. All in all quite the printing nightmare – although I imagine printers will do very nicely out of it, thank you.

Ed: I’m going to ignore the fact that you jumped straight from fiction to monarchy but I am going to remind you that Mrs E Windsor is held in a great deal of regard in this country so it would behove you to be more respectful.

I’m longing to use quod erat demonstrandum but nil desperandum…

I thought when I began researching this article (yes, I do research things, is that so hard to believe? No, don’t answer that) that most words beginning with Q would concern questions, hence the title of this piece. But that’s simply not the case.

How much do I love the letter Q? Well, I’m glad you asked, because I could just as well have asked ‘Quantum do I love the letter Q?’ because the Latin for ‘how much’ is quantum. And if there’s anyone out there who can explain to me what quantum physics and quantum mechanics are all about without me having to attend night classes for six months, I’d be glad to include those subjects here. Suffice to say that my understanding of quantum physics and mechanics is heavily influenced by years of Star Trek viewing. All I need to know is that when Jean-Luc says ‘make it so’, I get a tingle.

Ed: Ramble ramble ramble.

I’ve picked eight toothsome words beginning with Q so let’s begin the beguine with Quark. Putting aside the Quite Interesting fact that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has a marvellous barkeep named Quark, here’s some science.  A quark is an elementary particle and a fundamental constituent of matter.  

flavours of quark

Quarks combine to form composite particles called hadrons,
the most stable of which are protons and neutrons, the components of atomic
nucleii. There are six types of quarks (known as flavours) and they are up,
down, charm, strange, top and bottom. Quarks were only really discovered in
the 1960s, but they’ve stood the test of time, so it can’t all have been
magic ‘shrooms in the physics lab.Trouble is, I imagine the different
flavours of quarks as ice cream cones – “Can I have two scoops of strange
please with charm sprinkles please”. But instead of ice-cream, it turns out
(actually I knew this one from back in the days when I was a health food
freak) that quark is also a cheese. A curdy creamy cheese which originated
in Eastern Europe. The echt version is like a weighty fromage frais. In
Germany, it’s the equivalent of yogurt, packed with fruit (and preservatives,
no doubt) but it can also be enjoyed on bagels. It contains no salt and has
a low fat content, but that don’t let you put you off – actually, it’s delicious.

The Quince (Cydonia oblonga) is an orchard fruit native to southwest Asia. Although rather out of favour nowadays (only quince jelly is widely made), the fruit was as popular in 17th and 18th century cookery as apple and pear are today. This recipe would surely delight even modern cooks.

Sir Hugh Platt’s Quidini of Quinces
Take the kernells out of eight great Quinces, and boile them in a quart of spring water, till it come to a pinte, then put into it a quarter of a pinte of Rosewater, and one pound of fine Sugar, and so let it boile till you see it come to bee of a deepe colour: then take a drop, and drop it on the bottome of a sawcer, then let it run through a gelly bagge into a bason, then set it in your bason upon a chafing dish of coles to keep it warm, then take a spoone, and fill your boxes as full as you please, and when they be colde cover them: and if you please to printe it in moldes, you must have moldes made to the bigness of your boxe, and wet your moldes with Rosewater, and so let it run into your mold, and when it is colde turne it off into your boxes. If you wette your moldes with water, your gelly will fall out of them.
Sir Hugh Platt Delights for Ladies (London: 1600)

There are two very different meanings of quire. First is the archaic name for a choir. In non-conformist country churches of the Georgian era, groups of musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, would play for services, often seated in the wooden gallery above the congregation. The London Gallery Quire carries on that tradition to this day. The second meaning of quire is of course to do with paper. A quire is 24 sheets of paper comprise a twentieth of a ream or a collection of leaves of paper, folded one within the other. The word has come down from the Latin quaterni (four each) through the Old French quaier to the word we use today. A quire is also an old word for a quiver of arrows and, bizzarely, the collective noun for a group of cobras (see, I find it hard to visualize cobras in a group: they just don’t strike me as especially companionable animals). And I can’t leave quire without mentioning something I found on the wilder edges of my research. Quentin Quire, also known as Kid Omega, is a Marvel Comics character created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely!

Ed: Comic book characters now? Oy…

There is one word where U does not follow the letter Q and some might say it’s not a real word at all. But it is in the dictionary – honestly. It’s Qwerty.

We have C.L. Sholes of Milwaukee to thank the keyboard layout we all love to hate. Although his first typewriting machines were arranged alphabetically in two rows, they were prone to jamming during typing. Sholes knew that to solve this problem, the typebars would have to hang at safe distances. The QWERTY keyboard was determined by the existing mechanical linkages of the typebars inside the machine to the keys on the outside.

early qwerty keyboardNow, did you understand all that? Personally, I struggle with the technicalities, despite having learned to type on a 1920s typewriter which looked not unlike Mr Sholes’ machines of the 1870s.

Mr Sholes and his financial backer James Densmore went to Remington (at that time an arms manufacture) and in 1874 the first Type-Writer appeared on the market, offering, incidentally, only capital letters. In 1878, Sholes secured the patent for his QWERTY keyboard and the Remington No 2 was released complete with a shift key enabling upper and lower case type. There have been many attempts to improve on the QWERTY layout but none have shaken its place in the market.

My next word isn’t an object, it isn’t a place, it’s – well, it’s a quiddity. The dictionary gives three definitions. The first is that quiddity is the essence or nature of a thing. Second that it’s a quibble, a trifling point. And third that it’s an eccentricity or odd feature. Putting those definitions aside for a moment though, isn’t it just the most marvellous word? The kind of word that might inspire a verse or two, the kind of word that Proust could turn into an entire chapter. Saul Bellow deals with the word in his characteristically full-bodied way “I began to give some thought to the memoir I had promised to write and wondered how I would go about it – his freaks, quiddities, oddities, his eating, drinking, shaving, dressing and playfully savaging his students.” The origin is from Medieval Latin quidditas meaning essence and from that deceptively simple word what (or quid).

There is no rational explanation for choosing quipu as the next Q word. I saw the word and thought ‘oh yes, isn’t that the rather lovely South American forest bird I saw on a David Attenborough documentary?’ Well, I was right about South America but quipu is definitely not a bird. It’s altogether more fascinating. As used by the ancient Inca civilisation of Peru, Quipu is the use of knots in strings to record numerical information. The Inca had no written records so the quipu played a major role in the administration of the Inca empire. As an example of how a basic quipu worked, if the number 586 was to be recorded on the string, then six touching knots were placed near the free end of the string, a space was left, then eight touching knots for the 10s, another space, and finally 5 touching knots for the 100s. The strings were made of the wool of the alpaca or llama and dyed in various colours to represent different information. Those responsible for creating and deciphering the quipu knots were known as Quipucamayocs.

Ed: Did you make that word up? Quipucamayocs? Sounds like something on a Tex-Mex menu.

And now for a dance. The quadrille – a square dance of French origin in 6/8 or 2/4 time first introduced to England in 1808 and performed by four couples. It comprises five parts (or figures) which are called Le Pantalon, L’Été, La Poule, La Pastourelle and Finale. As can be seen in this cartoon of 1817, the complexities of the dance sometimes gave rise to mishaps!
Quadrille Dancing errors 1817
The quadrille must be one of the few dances to be performed not only by humans but also by horses. In fact, the equine quadrille preceded the dance by a couple of centuries. It began as a highly effective military manoeuvre and evolved into a display of skilled horsemanship for four horses and riders. Nowadays, equine quadrille is a choreographed dressage ride usually performed to music. A minimum of four horses are used but the number can be many more. There is also a version which includes the use of carriages. In 18th century French society, paired dancers replaced paired horses and the quadrille de contredanses was born.

Ed: There’s a suspiciously large number of French words in this article – have you been taking unauthorised trips on Le Eurostar?

And lastly from quadrille to Quadrivium. Meaning the ‘meeting of four roads’ (from the Latin), the Quadrivium was the higher division of the seven liberal arts taught in medieval universities. These studies were based on those pursued in the Classical world. The Liberal Arts divided into the Trivium (the lower division) consisting of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; and the Quadrivium (the higher division) which consisted of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy.

To finish on a less erudite note, Quadrivium is also a flamboyant font (what, you thought I’d get through a whole article without mentioning a font? Not a chance.)

Ed: I don’t understand your obsession with fonts. Can I give you the number of my shrink?

Postscript: This is how this article looked when I tried it out in In-Design. Now if only I had the coding ability to make it look like this on a web page!

A Question of Q smallA Question of Q2 small


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