What has your Valentine's Day smooch got to do with the letter 'X'?

by OFER TIROSH 08/02/2017
What has your Valentine's Day smooch got to do with the letter 'X'?

As you’re moving in for a romantic kiss with your partner this Valentine’s Day, hopefully the origin of the letter ‘X’ being used to represent a kiss won’t be the first thing on your mind. However, just in case your professional translation training takes over and you’re preoccupied with such thoughts, allow us to shed some light on the matter so that you can focus on enjoying your Valentine’s Day instead!

X and Christianity 

X is intertwined with the Christian religion, having been used to represent Christ for around a thousand years. The X comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is an abbreviation of the Greek for Christ: Χριστός. 

Marcel Danesi, linguistic anthropology and semiotics professor at the University of Toronto, explains:

“X meant Christ, and because of that, it meant faith and fidelity.”

Incidentally, this is why Xmas is used as an abbreviation for Christmas. 

X as a signature

The use of X at the bottom of letters and other documents became widespread in the Middle Ages. With such a high proportion of the population unable to read or write, an X was used in place of a signature. 

History shows that this X, which was already accepted as a signature at the end of a letter, then underwent a transformation into representing a kiss. While no precise date can be used to distinguish the change, the University of Toronto’s Marcel Danesi believes that: 

“Symbols have a way of jumping from one domain to another. Romantic love becomes an obsession, and the kiss became empowering. It said to family and society: ‘You can’t tell me who I should marry.’”

Thus romantic rebellion in the Middle Ages pushed X from representing merely a person’s name towards the amorous letter that it is today.  

Written history of the X

There is some debate around when the first literary example of X being used to represent a kiss dates back to. Some scholars believe that it was around the 1850s or 1860s, with Aunt Judy’s Magazine (Issue XI) noting that:

 “All these crosses mean kisses, Jemima told me.”

The issue is believed to date back to sometime between 1866 and 1885. However, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates the use of the X to mean kisses as far back as 1763, citing a letter from priest Gilbert White:

“Madame, … In the whole it is best that I have been the loser [of a bet], as it would not be safe in all appearances to receive even so much as a pin from your Hands. 

“I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster (Our Father) and Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Gil. White.”

It is possible that White was using X to represent blessings, rather than kisses, but many side with the OED in believe this to be the first literary evidence of X’s romantic connotations. 

The modern-day X

Before the rise of email and instant messaging, using an X in a letter was generally indicative of a communication between those who were romantically involved. Nowadays, X is as often used between friends – and even colleagues – as it is between lovers. 

However, that doesn’t mean that an X at the end of a communication is always innocent. Dating website Whats Your Price conducted a survey that found that 55% of women and 60 % of men who had had an affair at work said that it had been sparked off by the use of X in a messages. 

Final thoughts

X is used for kisses in the UK and North America. In Portugal, it is common to put ‘bjs’ at the end of a message, as an abbreviation of beijinhos (meaning little kisses). How do other languages convey kisses through abbreviations or symbols? Leave a comment below to let us know. 

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