As I was staring at the cloudscape (as I often do) the other day, I noticed a contrail X streaked into the sky. It made me happy, because X is my favorite letter. X is symmetrical, balanced, sturdy. Whimsical, too, with its appendages splayed as though cartwheeling. It’s a strong but fairly silent underdog in the alphabet; X ties with the letter J for the third least common letter in English, with a usage frequency of about 0.15%. Though underrepresented in common vernacular, X has marked its own spot as a versatile symbol in other ways.
- In the term X-rated, it refers to the degree of obscenity in movies.
- It indicates a signature line on most forms. (As in, Please sign by the X.)
- X is used by the illiterati in lieu of a signature.
- A dead cartoon character’s eyes are drawn as Xs.
- In guitar tablature, an X over a string means the player should lay a finger over that string to make it sound distorted or muted.
- It represents the multiplication function.
- Wilhelm Röntgen called his invention X-radiation (or X-ray) to signify an unknown type of radiation.
- First used in La Géométrie (1637) by René Descartes, X denotes an unknown quantity in mathematics.
- In art, the use of X indicates a collaboration with two or more artists.
X also represents my first name. The Greek uppercase letter chi is X, and is the first letter used to spell “Christ” in Greek (Χριστος). That’s why X also represents Christ’s name in Xmas, which by the way is not meant to disrespect or secularize the holiday. Religious scribes and scholars have been using this abbreviation for at least a thousand years.
And of course, Xs mean kisses—a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. We often see them nestled between O hugs like this: XOXO. Someone might use three in a row—XXX—to indicate true passion, or true raunch, depending on your perspective. (I, however, think it carries the most significance when used alone: powerful as a missive whispered at close range, indelible as a treasured memory.)
I read somewhere that people who favor the letter X above the other 25 are very likely to have a tattoo of a cartoon character or lightning bolt on their ankle. Well, they were partly correct; I do have a tattoo on my ankle, but it’s neither of those.
(In case you were wondering, I also have a favorite number: 14. It’s stalwart and beautiful, optimistic and calm. It’s rectilinear in all the right places, and is the perfect shade of purplish-blue. Unlike 7 which makes me nervous, like there’s so much riding on its one shoulder. 7 is a pretty shade of green, and I think it would rather be a tree than a lucky number. And don’t even get me started on number 3, which is a fetid-smelling greenish gold. I’m not kidding, 3 really stinks. And if you find this kind of sensory association curious, you may be interested in my friend Dave’s synesthesia research.)