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X blurs the line between letter and thing, between symbol and
act. So often used as an unknown quantity, a placeholder, it also
functions as the signature of an illiterate, a result of slashing
at the surface. To x is to mark, and X is the mark. It is
the quintessential mark.
As a letter, X reigns in pop culture: as identifier (Generation
X, X Games), as shorthand (“thx” or “tx” for “thanks” in
text-messaging), and as the whole word (“X” for the drug ecstasy or
MDMA). But in the abecedarian world of lexicography, the measure of
a letter's prestige is the number of dictionary pages devoted to a
letter's words. Word count is market share. Dictionary is
demographic. Lexi is sexy. And in the dictionary, the X pages are
(from top): X signature on an 1801 Land Deed, a football diagram
and Mountin Dew moonshine jug (Shiloh Museum of Ozark
The 24th letter of the modern Latin alphabet is more flexible
than its lex-lack suggests. As a noun, X represents the unknown,
whether person, place or thing. It is also a verb—to x is to mark
with an X or delete, cancel or blot. (In the image at right, an X
signature marks an 1801 Land Deed. A clerk or lawyer adds the first
name in front of the X, the surname after, a “his” or “her” above,
and the word “mark” below. X is a legitimate signature when a
person is ill, blind, incapacitated or illiterate.) X is also an
adjective, familiar to drinkers of XXX liquor (moonshine), wearers
of XXXL clothing (“XL” for “extra-large”) and purveyors of X-rated
materials (the X rating has been officially replaced by NC-17,
although adult films still use the X designation).
As symbol, X is a strike in bowling and baseball, a defensive
player in a football diagram, a kiss at the end of a letter or text
message. On maps, X indicates infantry or mountaintop. X multiplies
(2x2=4), relates dimension (2x4), and signifies the unknown
algebraic quantity (2x-4x). X prescribes medicine (Rx), reacts
chemically (rx), raises a musical note to a double sharp and refers
to pins and lamps in circuit diagrams.
As a creative mark, X checks the box, the ballot, the
tic-tac-toe square, and the goods on a treasure map. X also closes
Still, an impatient lexicographer x-ed out way too many X words
in his sudden hurry to complete his duty. He got to X and cried,
“Only Y and Z to go!” I happened to be flipping from U to Z when
the injustice made itself known. X may mark the spot, but its pages
are easy to miss. The X pages are lonely stragglers, arriving only
after the happening party of W is over, and they are easily
overwhelmed and ignored in the rush toward Y. Flimsy and
insubstantial, the X pages are an embarrassment to the eye, a
disappointment to the fingers.
Yet, we would barely know which way to turn without the X-axis.
We simply can't break from X-ray. And none of us would be here
without the X chromosome. The other letters may sneer with
contemptuous xenophobia at poor little X, but where would those
other letters be, typographically, without the x-height? As
designers, we are naturally xenophilic (a word not listed in my
dictionary's X pages).
So does this deficit cry out for remedy?
If it does, we've more than made up for it in the world beyond
the dictionary, the real world of slang and commerce, lingo and
branding, movies and nicknames and books and, just, stuff.
In the world of books, X is anonymous and dangerous but also
transformative, transcendent. Mr. X might take a break
from Project X to attend Symphony X with
Nathalie X sometime around Twilight X. After
graduating from Academy X on Earth X, Soldier
X might be stationed at Camp X and soon deployed to
Planet X to battle the Virus X from Dimension
X (exhausted yet?). On X Day, Little X might
play The Game of X with the X President. If
there's A Warrant for X, the X Bar X Boys are
probably Looking for X, which will surely end in The
Tragedy of X.
(clockwise from top left): Dark Horse Comic's X character, the
poster for American History X, Barbara Bach as Agent Triple X and
Syndrome X, by Dr. Gerald reaven.
In the well-paneled rooms of comic books, X functions mainly as
the mysterious name of a character (X in Dark Horse
Comics, X and Professor X in Marvel Comics) or a
team of characters (Marvel's X-Men, X-Force and
X-Statix). But X is also a place (Planet X), a weapon
(Weapon X), and the title of a manga series.
In movies and television, X suggests secrecy, bravado and
science gone wrong. Mr. X was a character on The X-Files
as well as in the film JFK. Dr. X, or Dr. James Xavier, was a
character in the 1963 sci-fi horror flick, X: The Man with the
X-Ray Eyes. In 1998's American History X, Edward Norton's
character attempts to erase his neo-Nazi past and start over. Ice
Cube starts over by playing Triple X in the sequel to xXx,
in which Vin Diesel played the original Xander Cage. Predating the
boys is Agent Triple X, Barbara Bach's character in the 1977 James
Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me.
As for the spies who worked for a living, MI5 used the XX System
(or Double-Cross System) in WWII counterespionage overseen by the
Twenty Committee, which gave the system its name (20 in Roman
numerals is XX). Triple X Syndrome is a real chromosomal
abnormality in which women have three X chromosomes (one consistent
effect is the women are very tall). Syndrome X is a “syndrome”
because it puts “60 million Americans at risk for heart attacks,”
and it's an “X” because it's a “hidden” condition, so says the
eponymous book's jacket copy.
X is a blank placeholder, but it is the blank placeholder. No
other letter quite marks the spot like X. A cross. A double slash.
A burning brand. It's the way it looks, the innumerable ways it can
be replicated, but also the way it sounds in the mouth.
Eks. Its sound is that of swords crossing, a fillet
hitting the fry-pan, a curse. A hex. It also sounds like a coughing
up, like a hair is caught in the back of your throat. Eks.
Eks! You're trying to get rid of something you don't want.
Cough it up. X it out.
Ah, yes, the ex, as in ex-wife, ex-husband, ex-girlfriend,
ex-boyfriend. My ex. Your ex. How's your ex? Gone, my friend, long
gone. X-ed out. The shorthand nickname is a way of blotting out the
person, the past, the thing. But the saying of it keeps the
bitterness alive. The ex symbolizes what the nickname seeks to
redact. Saying the past is past somehow keeps the past alive. It's
akin to the censorious XXXXX's calling more attention to the words
beneath. The ex is paradoxical.
Ex also happens to represent, in industry, the explosion-proof.
Can't live with 'em, can't blow 'em up.
Madame X (1883-84), John Singer Sargent (Metropolitan
Museum of Art).
And saying it also sounds like the end. The end of something.
Something that was but is no longer. A nothing. A nihilistic
letter. Comic artists used to use X's over a character's eyes to
show death. In Latin, ex means “out of,” which might be
why the word existence sounds like its opposite: ex-existence.
Ex-ist. I used to be. Now I'm an ex-me. I've gotten over myself,
To name oneself with an X or an ex- is to self-annihilate. It
can be destruction for the purpose of creation. A phoenix rises out
of the X's. A person reborn as an identity without limitation,
without restrictions, without moral code. That's the transformation
imagined by creators of comic-book and movie heroes.
In real life, Malcolm X sought to reclaim his identity by
reclaiming his name. Then there's “mystery” woman who modeled for
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, a painting that
scandalized Paris in 1884; she turned out to be Virginia Avegno
Gautreau of Louisiana, a woman who sought to reinvent herself in
France. As Roman numeral, X identifies you as one in a series, a
holder of the tens place. Pope Gregory X (1271-1276), for example,
made his name by writing a letter famously opposing the blood
libel: the claim that Jews killed and ate Christian children (“[W]e
order that Jews seized under such a silly pretext be freed from
And then there's Jesus.
In January 2007, the New York Sun reported that Saudi Arabia may
ban the letter X because “it resembles the mother of all banned
religious symbols in the oil kingdom: the cross.” The X is not a
reference to the cross. It does, however, stand for Christ in words
like “Xmas,” but only because the first letter in the Greek
spelling of Christ is X (???st??).
(from top): X hands from The Teen Idles's Minor Disturbance
album cover, XXXX beer and ZZ Top's XXX album cover.
X can also stand for a group or ethic. The punk-originated
straight edge movement is signified by a variety of X logos: X,
XXX, xXx, sXe and 24 (X, the 24th letter). Minor Threat's 1981 song
“Straight Edge” condemned drugs and alcohol, giving singer Ian
MacKaye an “edge.” An X on the back of the hand derives from a 1980
story that a club owner branded the underage Idles with black X's
on their hands.
Coincidentally, and as more proof that X can be its own
opposite, X's were traditionally used to indicate the strength of
an ale. Dos Equis (“Two X's”) is a brand of Mexican beer, and XXXX,
or Four X, is a brand of beer made by Queensland brewers.
Whether alcohol is involved or not, X has often been the easy
answer to the hard question of naming bands, songs and albums. X is
the name of albums by Klaus Schulze, INXS, The Beloved, K-Ci and
JoJo, Queens of the Stone Age, Def Leppard, Anna Vissi, and Liberty
X. X is also a Los Angeles punk band, not to be confused with The
Ex, an anarchist punk band from the Netherlands, or X-Alfonso, a
Cuban musician. XXX may have been a 1999 album by ZZ Top,
but XXX Records is an underground dance label in Vienna.
The creation myth of the band Brand X is that a music critic
scribbled “Brand X” in the studio diary. That joke on pop culture
has given us Brand X Martial Arts, Brand X Internet, Brand X Music
Catalog, and Brand (x), a U.K. ad firm that claims, without irony,
to be “(x)ceptional” and to possess “(x)pertise.”
In naming, X brings with it echoes of science and technology.
It's cool the way a machine is cool, impersonally sequential,
simple as a number and yet its meaning is beyond the ken of the
average Joe. X is like a password into a secret language, one that
may endow the speaker with a false sense of insider expertise by
way of a mere facility with the jargon. You don't have to know what
it means as long as you say it with confidence.
(from left): X-33 Program, X-Wing fighter model kit and X-Plane
In aerospace, X stands for “experimental,” and the culture loves
to appropriate the experimental. From NASA's X-33 Program and the
X-15 aircraft, you get the X-Wing fighter from Star Wars
and the 2006 X-Plane postage stamp, featuring an image of the
(clockwise from top left): Mac OS X packaging, VitaminWater XXX,
an example of youth-culture marketing and Paloma Picasso's X
The resonance of X as a signifier of mysterious precision
explains why it's so common in commerce and branding. The Jaguar
X-Type. The 2008 Mitsubishi Evolution X. The X2000, Sweden's
high-speed train. The X-Acto knife. Mac OS X. The X game
for Nintendo's Game Boy. Microsoft's Xbox console. VitaminWater XXX
(with three antioxidants). The X is a California roller coaster
(the seats swivel around). Product X is a protein powder for
bodybuilders. The X-Vest adds weight for exercise. Very few drug
names start with X (Xanax, Xenical), maybe because that's too
scary, but dozens of others incorporate X into the name (from
Aciphex to Lovenox to Zyprexa).
Check out your local Yellow Pages for companies like X-treme Car
Care, Xpress Motorsports, and Xtreme Tans, and compare these
mini-mall youth-culture examples with the luxe Boomer retail lure
of Paloma Picasso's X pendant and other X jewelry for Tiffany's. X
can be childlike, maybe recalling simple gestures with a crayon.
These gestures are now remembered fondly, with nostalgia,
performing the simple miracle of changing X from a
No to a Yes.
How many characteristics can a single letter convey? Patton contemplates the key qualities of the letter K.
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