Monday, April 26, 2010


Remember when you were a child reading your ABC books?  The early letters were simple: A is for Apple, D is for Dog, L is for Lollipop or maybe Lemon.  Toward the end of the alphabet, things became more tricky, especially when it came to X.  By default, most books read, “X is for Xylophone," since so few words a child would ever use begin with X.  

In fact, few words an adult ever uses, besides Xanax, begin with X.  A few of my favorites include Xyloid, for something wooden or woody; Xanthine, for something yellowish in color, Xerotic, for something dry (nowhere near as interesting as the word looks or sounds); and Xiphoid for sword-shaped.  

One of the most fascinating X-words is Xanthippe, which means a shrewish nagging woman.  Actually, Xanthippe originally meant a blond horse (In Greek, xanos=blond, [thus xanthine=yellowish] and hippo=horse).  Xanthippe came to mean a shrewish woman because it was also the name of the wife of Socrates.  The Greeks often named people after horses, much like people today sometimes name kids after cars, like Mercedes or Porsche (Porsche, by the way, is a variant of Portia, which in Latin means pig--think porcine).   Socrates apparently adored his wife and praised her for speaking her mind.  Other men, including some of his pupils, weren't quite as fond of her opinions and confidence.  Over time, her assertiveness became labeled shrewishness, and her name became synonymous with what today people might call a bitch.  Hmmmmm . . . where have we heard this story before?

My all-time favorite X-word, though, is, of course, Xanadu, for the "stately pleasure dome" written about by Coleridge in Kubla Khan in 1797, and then re-imagined in the 1980's in that roller-skating disco film  starring Olivia Newton John.  Who could ever forget the Xanadu theme song?  "Now we are here in Xana-du-u-u-u . . . ."

So, it’s true, X doesn’t begin all that many words in English--dozens rather than thousands.  In order for X to have its eks sound in a word, it needs to be preceded by a vowel, like e, for eXample.  Otherwise, X sounds like Z, as in Xylophone, so this is no help to a girl who's just trying to learn her sounds.  In fact, it's positively eXasperating.  

But think of the eXcitement when you slip X inside a word, or how eXceptional it is on its own: L doesn’t mark the spot, or Q, or even D.  No--X, in all its cross-hatched glory, marks the spot.  And for centuries, X has been a legal signature if one couldn't sign one's name.  That's power.  

It's also half the fun of tic tac toe.  And it's the kisses in xoxo.  It's the unknown in the X-Files.  It's the anonymous or unnamable or the missing.  It's the task we complete and X off our list.  And as Simon Cowell can tell you, it's that special talent, that X-factor, that it's difficult to name, but when we see it, we just know. 
And then there’s three in a row: 
Something forbidden or lethal or even enticing, yes, like triple-strength ale or poison or porn.  When I was a girl, we'd visit Chinatown in Boston after trips to the science museum.  Inevitably we'd pass by the old porn clubs and movie houses, like the Naked-i Cabaret.  Those places are gone now, cleared out during the 80's and 90's, but those mysterious signs with all their flashing red X's are burned into my memory.   Who knew how eXtreme, how eXcessive, how seXy a letter could be?

The fact that X is the least common letter in English makes it a perfect eXample of how powerful letters and language are, how they fill our mouths and minds and hearts with meaning.  How rich they are with memory, how replete with possibility, and how much we need them each day from the moment we wake until the moment we sleep.   


  1. Wow- you have done X justice!!!! :o)

  2. I have to agree with Johanna. You sure have!

    My daughter hates writing the letter X. She has just turned 4, but already is of the opinion that X is just for playing tic-tac-toe, and not really a letter.

  3. Thanks, Johanna and Angie! I love that your daughter thinks this, Angie! She cracks me up.

  4. :) you made me smile. x marks the spot. exactly what i was looking for today.

  5. we so enjoyed reading your post about x, thanks gigi.

  6. And its sound, Ex, with its insistence on the past, and the algebraic x, y's faithful companion. I think I was a member of Generation X but never even noticed. This was a super post.

  7. XOXO Gigi darling!
    well, we are almost approaching Z very soon!
    Enjoying the alphabet posts~ especially the visual delights captured by you...

  8. Well...that was more "X" words than I could ever have come up with. I do love Xanadu, but tend to default to X-ray when asked.

    How are you?

  9. I always found it interesting that those unfortunate souls who could neither read nor write would sign their name with an X. I think I sort of agree with Angie's daughter.

    Although, I do agree that Xanadu is a fabulous word!

  10. Fascinating post on the letter X, and you are so right-- It is a mysterious and enticing letter!

  11. WOW! I too harbour a secret crush on the letter X but I could never have detailed why. Gigi, this post is one I just want to keep forever, print out on lovely xerotic paper and pull out again on rainy days to savour.

    Now - I can go to bed with Xanaduuuuuuuuu in my head and dream of a time when life was carefree and any future eventuality of calling my girls 'Portia' or 'Blonde horse' had not yet even emerged as a vague thought ;-)

  12. Dear Gigi,
    That was brilliant. You have enriched my vocabulary in the X department, 10 fold.... and, it's going to help me enormously when playing Scrabble !
    I used to love going to X-rated films when I wasn't really old enough ! They were nothing like the horror films of today but, at the time, they were really frightening.
    .... and, I've been singing Xanadu since reading your post and it will be in my head for at least a week ! It doesn't matter though as I love it. XXXX

  13. are you referring to the song by rush?

  14. I like this - what a great subject.

  15. I was wondering what you'd do for X, Gigi... this is wonderful fun! :o) Happy Week ((HUGS))

  16. Xiphoid and xerotic - I really must try and remember these words. I'd stun myself if I could use them in a sentence. And imagine the scrabble guns faces if I used these instead of my fall back word 'exit'. eXcellent post Gigi!

  17. I know another word: Xylitol, as in menthol. I don´t know if it´s used in the English language, but I guess it is.
    We use it on our chewing gum and pastilles packages...
    Very interesting subject you brought up here..I will probably end up thinking of more words beginning with x...

    Wish you a great week, sweet Gigi.

  18. Gigi,
    I love this post! When I was a little girl, I used to read the encyclopedia and dictionary to learn new and unusual words, at which point I would BANDY them about INNOCUOUSLY, only to be laughed at by my brother and sisters for using 'Big' words...
    Still, they never dampened my love of words and the richness that can be expressed by finding just the right one to say what you REALLY mean.

    This bit on X was perfectly suited for a word lover like me!


  19. a nurse I loved your Xanax, xiphoid, and,
    xerotic...but being old fashioned X will always mean X-ray to me:)

  20. I will never take X for granted again! I'll bet you had fun writing this one.

  21. Gigi~
    I know I say this often, but this might be one of my all-time favorite posts of yours. Well, at least I know it ranks in the top 5! X has been and will always be one of my favorite letters, and I just thank you eXcessively for pointing out all its perfections!

    So thrilled to know you made the delicious 'power balls' ~ pecans sound perfect.

    Thinking of you lots!

  22. Oh that was a lovely clever post to read! You really did X justice. Growing up it was always an Xylophone in the alphabet books (although I always pronounced it 'x-zylophone' - was I wrong?! Darn it!)

  23. So, you just suddenly made X the seXiest letter in the alphabet. Perhaps the most well-researched, literary, informative post ever written on the subject. That's a safe bet, methinks.

    Also, WHAT THE EFF is going on with the new image uploader today?! Do you manually resize your images? I do, but now I can't with this new wangdoodle Blogger secretly, furtively, annoyingly installed. Hmph.

  24. This is a truly lovely post, Gigi. It is fascinating how this letter comes to stand for the eXotic and the unknown -- as Derrida might say, for the trace of “the presence of an absence,” the supplement, the eXtra (“Yes, eXactly,” as my eX used to say, eXasperated) -- perhaps because, for English-speakers, all words that begin with X are necessarily “foreign.” I wonder if the X serves the same purpose for speakers of other languages. And I am touched by how intimately, for you, this discussion is tied to memory, and the sad-sweetness of nostalgic it evokes.

  25. Oh Gigi, what a fantastic post! You've outdone yourself!

    I think X might just have stumped me, and so I am even more impressed with this very wonderful Ode to X. I will never think of it the same again!

    Post duly bookmarked in my Favourite Posts. C x

  26. This is a perfect, perfect post for a word lover. Perfect!!

  27. Wow! Well done!
    X is hard!

    You are like this little walking encyclopedia with so many interesting facts to share...and with such beautiful glorious pictures to adorn the shiny pages.

    big x's to you today.


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