And You Thought X Was Just Another Letter


There’s something about the letter X.

It marks the spot, defines a generation, keeps Mulder and Scully busy, labels superhero mutants and warns of sexual content. It even made headlines recently, when two hard drives chock full of nuclear confidences were reported missing from Los Alamos National Laboratory. They disappeared from its top-secret “X Division,” where nuclear weapons are designed.

X is mysterious, it’s a highly sensitive unknown, it’s hip, and it’s been that way for centuries. But why?

It’s one of the least used letters in our alphabet, and there are many other ways of representing its “ks” sound, like the double “c” in succeed or the “cks” of locks. But we keep using it, says John M. Lawler, who’s been teaching linguistics for 30 years at the University of Michigan, because “it’s a very potent symbol. It has mystical significance.”


Lawler, says the symbolism our culture associates with X has developed over a long period of time. In a recent interview, he explained why X still has appeal, what it means and whence it came.


Question: Where did X come from?

Answer: It was invented by the Greeks for convenience. They didn’t really need it . . . these things sort of happened automatically. . . . There were an awful lot of words ending in the “k” sound that got an “s” added to them--the past tense normally did--so, instead of having to write two letters, they wrote this one.

Q: What’s so special about X?

A: Well, there are 26 letters in the alphabet and each of them has a history, but X is a special case in a lot of ways. . . . It’s a very potent letter. It’s got all kinds of mystic significance.

First of all, ever since people have gotten to the point where they recognize that there is an alphabet, X is the one letter that everybody learns. We use the symbol to mark ballot boxes, places on a map, it’s a normal symbol for marking the center or crossroads. Then there’s Christian symbolism. Not only is there the cross in lots of variations . . . there’s also the fact that in Greek, Christos starts with “chi” (a Greek letter from which X developed), and that’s been around since forever. It’s a magic symbol, it’s a very important symbol.

Q: How did it move from symbolizing Christ to the missing figure in an equation?

A: When science and mathematics began to use algebraic notation around the 18th century, they wanted to distinguish between things that are and aren’t going to change. They take independent variables from the front of the alphabet and take dependent variables from the end. A, B, C are going to stay constant. X is the variable, which just added to all the other mystic significance: the power of sciences. That’s what the X in “X-Files” is all about, the mystical and phenomenal power of science.


Q: What’s the significance of the X in Generation X?

A: That comes from Roman numerals. That particular X is 10 (so named because it’s the 10th generation of Americans since 1776). Gen-X is a nice name for it--not only is it 10, but it’s unknown, it’s mysterious. And everybody wants to be unknown, at least to the extent that they desire.

Q: Why is it still around?

A: This is mythology, and mythology is economically, and culturally, and politically and every other way, our most important export.

Q: But--particularly in the case of the Los Alamos “X Division”--wouldn’t it be wiser to at least try out something new to throw crooks off the trail? By now, they must skip all other file drawers and go right for the one labeled “X.”

A. Top secret. Yeah, right, it does sound to me like the lab and security culture are not exactly having a happy marriage. That’s really stupid. Why not just have a big sign saying: “Secrets here, come and get ‘em.” Everybody knows that the way to escape being singled out as an intelligence division is to be bland and boring. James Bond used “Universal Exports” (as a cover for British Intelligence).

Q: How about Z? Z seems like a cool letter.

A: Z has got a lot of things going for it. It’s at the end of the alphabet. . . . Z is a cool letter, but it doesn’t have the Christian symbolism or the “X marks the spot” [quality]. It’s got Zorro, though--you take your symbolism where you can get it--but Zorro didn’t die on a cross.

Q: What other X-amples are out there in everyday life?

A: There’s “X-rated,” which . . . adds sex, which, of course, gets everybody’s attention. Then there’s the phenomenon of the black Muslims taking an unknown name--the X name--in place of the slave name, of which Malcolm X is the most famous. Also “X-rays,” which developed in the 1890s. Then X meant unknown--they were rays of unknown origin.

Q: In a nutshell, then, what does X mean?

A: Mysterious, unknown, dangerous, scientific, intellectual, city slicker, pagan--it’s basically anything the Republicans don’t like.


A Chance to Test Your X Knowledge

Xs abound in our everyday language. Match each “X” term to its definition:

1. Generation X

2. Malcolm X

3. X-Men

4. Xmas

5. X-rated

6. “X-Files”


8. X-ray

9. XX

10. X marks the spot

11. X


A. Genetic mutant superheroes.

B. Hugs and kisses and a line of clothing.

C. Roman numeral 10 and rock band from the ‘80s.

D. Female chromosome make-up.

E. Destination on a map.

F. Black Muslim revolutionary.

G. Winter holiday.

H. Former naughty movie designation.

I. Those born between 1969 and 1979.

J. Cult hit television show.

K. Electromagnetic radiation able to penetrate solids.


Answers: 1. I, 2. F, 3. A, 4. G, 5. H, 6. J, 7. B, 8. K, 9. D, 10. E, 11. C