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The letter ‘X’ – a curious history

The letter X has a curious history in the English language. It is one of the least used letters in the alphabet. But it has managed to leave a lasting impression on the English language. It’s used in a variety of ways that are confounding at times.

The letter X was originally adapted from the Phoenician letter “samekh”. Its meaning is rooted in Greek numerology. It initially had the value of 60 in the Greek numeral system. Then Latin script evolved. X became part of the alphabet, although its true identity was a mystery. It didn’t match any of the previous letters’ sounds.

It was eventually used alongside the letter C to represent the /ks/ sound observed in classical Latin. As in “rixa” (quarrel). This combination was eventually replaced by the letter K. X continued to be used as an alternate representation of the sound. And in Old English, it was used to represent the voiceless velar fricative. This is a sound made in the back of the throat. For example, “uhtcearu” (dawn’s anxiety).

However, its most intriguing use was as a symbol of authenticity and agreement in legal documents during the Middle Ages. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “X” was considered to represent the Latin word “Christus.” That’s part of the phrase, “in Christi nomine,” translatable as “in the name of Christ.” When a person couldn’t read or write, they would sign a document with the symbol. Then the signature of a witness or notary who had seen them make the mark. It was believed to represent the person’s promise to truthfully represent themselves.

Another example of its use as a symbol is in the practice of X-raying. This happened to have a lot to do with X-radiation. This electromagnetic radiation was discovered in 1895 by physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. He referred to it as “X-rays.” The reason for his use of X remains unknown. Some argue that the letter X was chosen because it was an unknown quantity. Just like the radiation he was investigating.

Over time, X has found its way into various pop-cultural references. For example, the “X-Files” and “X-Men.” In mathematics, it has become synonymous with the unknown. It can also be seen in words like ‘xenophobia’  and ‘xylophone’.

The letter X might be one of the least used letters. But it remains a fascinating part of English’s linguistic development. From its numerological origins to its pop cultural presence. For an infrequently used letter, it has certainly managed to leave its mark on the English language.