X for All or Nothing

Filed Under: Article , Voice

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 lean, indeed.

(from top): X signature on an 1801 Land Deed, a football diagram and Mountin Dew moonshine jug (Shiloh Museum of Ozark History).

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 the Window.

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.

Photo: FotoEdge.

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, forever.

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 imprisonment”).

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 postage stamp.

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 X-15.

(clockwise from top left): Mac OS X packaging, VitaminWater XXX, an example of youth-culture marketing and Paloma Picasso's X pendant.

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.