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The Xtraordinary Letter X

xillustration small

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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