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Friday, September 20, 2013

The 24th letter of our alphabet, “X,” can be mysterious or even forbidden; but it is seriously undervalued among all the other letters (except in Scrabble). It’s not like the boring “B” or overused like the “E.”

In western civilization, we owe the “X” to the Greeks. They even had some words beginning with “X.” The Greeks in turn sent it off to Rome. The Romans thought it unworthy of being able to stand alone and felt the need to add a vowel before it, as in “ex.” Today, the “X” is very rare in any common words, other than those with the “ex” prefix. “X” words tend to be hard to pronounce, tongue-twisting, an easily avoided.

But the “X” is experiencing a rebirth of sorts. Modern culture and technology wouldn’t be the same without the “X.” The “X” can mean greater or extra: X-Games, X-treme, X-Men, X-Rated, and XS/XL/XXL (clothing sizes). It can also mean unknown or unspecified: X-Factor, X-Ray (originally meant unknown ray), X-Files, Planet X (assumed to be just beyond Pluto), Project X, Brand X, X-axis, and the unknown, or “X,” in algebraic equations. Used less often, it can mean experimental: X1 and X15 (aircraft) and the “X” prefixes assigned to stealth bombers.

“X” is more widely used as a cultural term: Xbox, X-Wing Fighter (Star Wars), Malcolm X, Generation X, Xmas (the “mas” is Anglo-Saxon for festival), the XXX Olympiad (2012 London Olympic Games), X-chromosome (female), “xxx” meaning kisses, X marks the spot (for pirate maps and ballots), X as a signature of an illiterate person, Ped Xing (a pedestrian crossing), Microsoft’s XP system, and xenophobia. Although not a modern invention, the use of “X” to mean Christ or Christianity is used worldwide.

There are 218 companies in the world whose name begins with “X.” Some are well known like Xerox (electronics) and Xcel (clothing), most are not. An “X” in your company name is often associated with high technology and innovation, and it also has a strong impact in print advertising. Chinese businesses lead the world in company names beginning with an “X” with 132 (52% of the total); their “X” actually has a “sh” sound. The U.S. is second with 41 (19%).

There are a staggering 508 pharmaceutical drug product names starting with “X.” Branding specialists believe that these names are perceived as making products stand out in a crowd, and words using “X” are gender neutral. Some common pharmaceuticals are Xanax, Xantium, Xenon, Xylestesin, and Xylocain. While not starting with the letter, Vitamin X (MDMA) is also known as Ecstasy.
Foods names beginning with “X” are a little harder to find: Xiao long bao (Chinese dumplings), Xiao hong dou (a small, sweet red bean), Xeres (sherry wine), xocolate (the Catalan Spanish for chocolate), Xcatic chiles, and Xylopia (a tree in the apple family). If you don’t care where the “X” is in the name of the food, try these: wax beans, pretzel stix, Pixy Stix, Crispix and Trix cereals, and Chex Party Mix. It’s not fair to count Xmas cookies. Animal names beginning with “X” are even harder to find: Xenops (a rain forest bird in South America), Xantus (a yak), Xerus (a ground squirrel in Africa), and Xenpus (a frog in Africa).

There is even “The X Song” used to teach children how to pronounce “X” in words: “There was a fox who got a box from an ox, it was a tux. The Tyrannosaurus Rex is extinct; I saw its X-ray - it was exciting.”

One more; how many countries have an “X” in their names? Answer: none (we tried).

Enough, enough!!

As a little bonus today, here are some legitimate 8-letter words starting with “X” that you can use in Scrabble: xerosere, xylidins, xiphoids, xenogamy, and xylitols. Of course you can also use the old reliable “ox.”  

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