THE HISTORY OF X.

Suzanne of Abecedaria has an interesting post on the history of the abbreviations ΧΡ and Χ for Χριστος ‘Christ’; her speculations on the history of omitting the final ς make sense to me:

Χριστος has been represented by Χρς, or Χς, and by ΧΡ in art and other representation. I have not found the ΧΡ in manuscripts and would not expect it since the manuscript form always includes the grammatical ending.
A quick glance at some facsimiles of Greek manuscripts shows that the words ιησους, χριστος, θεος, ανθρωπος, πατερ, ματερ, πνευμα and some other words were represented by their initial and final one or two letters which represent the grammatical ending. This could be ς,υ,ν,οι, ι &c.
For this reason, I am assuming that the transition from Χς to Χ happened with the beginning of the use of the vernacular languages in Europe, when the ending was no longer relevant. There would be no reason to retain the last letter and X alone came to represent Christ. There is also no reason to see a sign of disrespect in the transition from Χς to Χ. And so Xmas first appeared in English texts in the 16th century.

I’ve always been amused by people who find Xmas a disrespectful abbreviation; all they’re doing is showing their own ignorance of history.

Comments

  1. For real fun, try using “Xtian”.

  2. aldiboronti says:

    A minor tussle on the Straight Dope the other week over whether Xtian or Xian were the more logical form (as if logic had anything at all to do with language).
    I can’t recall whether the Big-Endians or Little-Endians got the advantage.

  3. IndigoJones says:

    “And so Xmas first appeared in English texts in the 16th century.”
    Would she had given us footnotes!
    Are there any other examples of a Greek and Latin union of this sort? And how, come to think of it, are we to pronounce Xmas?
    Xhausting to think about.

  4. Last night, I watched Sisters in Law, a documentary about legal proceedings in a town in Cameroon. The mix of lingual elements was fascinating, and included “Xmas” as a spoken word — “ex-muss holiday”.

  5. “And so Xmas first appeared in English texts in the 16th century.”
    Would she had given us footnotes!

    Well, the OED has a citation for “X’temmas” from 1551. Its first cite for “Xmas” is from c1755. (A full-text search of the OED on “Xmas” finds a couple of uses in the titles of mid-17th century works. Oh, and Coleridge used “Xstmas” in 1799 in a letter to Southey, but he went with “Xmas” in another letter two years later.)

  6. “I have not found the ΧΡ in manuscripts and would not expect it since the manuscript form always includes the grammatical ending.” — well, that clears up a mystery for me. The XP appears in very early Christian art – there are some great examples in Roman mosaics – but the difference between literary and visual art abbreviations for Christ(os) never occured to me. Maybe those first two letters formed such a good visual monogram that it stuck.

  7. I seem to remember it was a grade school teacher who told me not to write “Xmas” because it “takes the Christ out of Christmas.” Like there was that much left in it even then…
    Since the X is an abbreviation of ???????, further “abbreviated” to “Christ” in English, including a ‘t’ in “Xtian” is superfluous, no?
    Re the pronunciation, when writing or typing, in my head I think of these as “ex-mas” and “ex-ian”, but I don’t think I’d ever SAY them that way.

  8. (That’ll teach me not to just simply copy-paste, eh!)

  9. Copy-paste should work — I do it all the time. There must be some inter-browser weirdness.

  10. In many medieval manuscripts, the abbreviation was XPI, though the I (and sometimes the P as well) was often much smaller, especially on display pages. See, for example the “Chi-Rho” page of the Book of Kells, which is mostly the X.

  11. Thanks Ben for the footnote on the sixteenth century. I have mine somewhere and will update it when I can.
    Thanks for the Book of Kells reference, Lois.

  12. Every theology professor I’ve ever had has used “X” when they’re writing about Christ on the board.
    In a way, the “X” is appropriate in the English understanding, too — Christ was understood to be the “universal man,” a taking up of universal human nature into the divine person of the Logos, and it just strikes me that our use of “X” as a generic signature fits well with the orthodox understanding of the saving work of Christ.
    But this is only my own opinion that I came up with just now.

  13. Adam,
    I am game for this. X is a multivalent symbol and certainly can mean many things to many people. Thanks.

  14. I’m with Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Kotsko on the “multivalent symbol” concept.
    Myself, I used to think that the xyz axis thing in Cartesian algebra was a valid symbol for the Creator, in so far as “origin” and “infinity” got me to thinking of aspects of the Creator, God, and immortality.
    But then the whole idea of Jesus being God, that’s a question for another whole thread, isn’t it?

Speak Your Mind

*