X is for…

The Public Domain Review has a post answering a question that probably never occurred to you: what did alphabet books do about the letter X before X-rays?

Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?

As we see below, in addition to drawing on names — be it historical figures, plants, or animals, all mostly of a Greek bent (X being there much more common) — there’s also some more inventive approaches. And some wonderfully lazy ones too.

Xerxes was the most common (“X is for Xerxes,/ Who now lives no more”), but Xanthippe was also popular (there’s a marvelous illustration of her emptying a chamber pot over the head of a chuckling Socrates), and there was an entirely unexpected entrant:

We are not sure of the exact history of this figure known as Xany, but he seems to be associated with foolishness — perhaps a convenient mis-spelling of the more common “zany” (which itself refers to “Zanni”, a character type of Commedia dell’arte best known as a trickster).

There are others, including words that don’t actually start with X (“X is Extinct; he thinks everything bad,/ That was not invented, when he was a lad”) or even contain it (“X is for crossroads”) and one book that simply omits the letter, and the illustrations are well worth the visit on their own.

Also, check out the freely downloadable books at the U of Cal Press site; juha linked to it in an earlier thread, mentioning Nile Green (ed.), The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca (which I instantly grabbed for my Kindle), and listed a bunch more titles in this comment.

Comments

  1. J.W. Brewer says:

    The point developed toward the end that X is (well, was …) never used word-initially in English except for obvious loanwords is an interesting one. Of course, that presumably flows naturally from the fact that the /ks/ consonant cluster is not permitted word-initially by English phonotactics outside of loanwords (and hardly any I can think of outside proper names). I suppose similar phenomena can be found elsewhere, although then it gets fuzzy because e.g. perhaps C is never used word-initially in standard German except for loanwords but there are a reasonably large number of such loanwords going back a long time. I checked pre-x-ray English via a Shakespeare concordance, and the only X-initial word (other than a false positive for “King Lewis XI” of France) is Xanthippe, who is name-checked in Taming of the Shrew.

    The next-rarest initial letter in Shakespeare is Z, and most of the Z-initial words are likewise Greek loanwords (e.g. zenith, zephyr, zodiac), not to mention zany a/k/a xany, which I learn from the linked piece came from Italian. The one that feels least loanwordish is zeal/zealous/etc., which turns out to have been a medieval borrowing from French. There is however another genre of Z-initial words which are sort of slangy like “zounds” and also “zwagger’d,” where I think the spelling variation from “swaggered” is supposed to be eye dialect indicating a West Country accent.

  2. J.W. Brewer says:

    On further reflection, the alternate spelling Xmas is quite old in English, but perhaps its informality might make it seem inappropriate/disrespectful for use in the alphabet-book genre?

  3. John Cowan says:

    The next-rarest initial letter in Shakespeare is Z

    And then he comes out with a line in Hamlet II:ii, “Buzz, buzz”, which used to be the despair of typesetters in hot-metal days: they would have to misspell the words with one z each. Presumably Hamlet is saying “You’re putting me to sleep.”

  4. Among English initialisms, X rarely* stands for a word starting with x~. It may instead be a word starting with ex~ (BX, XML), or “cross” (BMX, XSS) or Roman numeral ten (SSPX, OSX).

    * Examples that sprang/sidled to mind were XANES, NXE, and AJAX, in which X stands respectively for x-ray, Xbox, and XML, which are sort of cheating. But I found an unexceptionable example in LUX experiment = “Large Underground Xenon”.

  5. “Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!”

  6. David Marjanović says:

    On further reflection, the alternate spelling Xmas is quite old in English, but perhaps its informality might make it seem inappropriate/disrespectful for use in the alphabet-book genre?

    Xmas is widely believed to be part of the War on Christmas by, y’know, people who care about that sort of thing. (Almost by definition, they don’t know about the symbolism of the Greek chi.)

  7. @mollymooly: There is also EXO, the Enriched Xenon Observatory, using the same kind of technology for detecting (a primarily different class of) rare events. Often, experiment pairs are developed like this in the early stages, and when the results of smaller-scale preliminary versions start to come out, the Department of Energy picks the one that has better data and funds the completion of just that one full-size detector. Normally, many of the scientists working on the “failed” experiment moving over to work on the other one. (I am not honestly certain whether LUX and EXO are going to operate that way; I have heard conflicting things, and I don’t have any close acquaintances working on either experiment.)

  8. David Marjanović says:

    I was wondering how the German city of Xanten managed to get its initial [ks]. de:WP says it’s ad sanctos; it’s far enough north that I can almost imagine beginning a word with [ks] seemed not quite as absurd as beginning it with [ts]…

  9. Stu Clayton says:

    Hamlet II:ii, “Buzz, buzz” … Presumably Hamlet is saying “You’re putting me to sleep.”

    Thus does the Hamlet figure Ruby Rhod dismiss his sycophants in The Fifth Element.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    Xanten … ad sanctos

    It’s not pronounced with “ks” by the locals, as the German WiPe remarks further down, but with “s”. That’s the only way I’ve heard it pronounced here.

    # Bereits 967 war daraus Xanctum geworden, 1144 Xantum, wenngleich sich auch Santen als Bezeichnung der Stadt noch bis ins 18. Jahrhundert sowie als rheinischer Dialektausdruck noch bis heute bewahrt hat. #

  11. Stu Clayton says:

    Golldurnit, the nanobots ate my link to The Fifth Element.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Hs2zFlBSZLQ

  12. David Marjanović says:

    It’s not pronounced with “ks” by the locals, as the German WiPe remarks further down, but with “s”.

    Yes, nowadays, and since at least the beginning of the 13th century. But the 10th- and mid-12th-century attestations have this X, and the article doesn’t explain it. The only way I can explain it is from the d of ad.

  13. Stu Clayton says:

    You are suggesting that the X might have been intended to indicate a /ds/ pronunciation ? You call “absurd” the notion that it was indicating /ts/, even though that is today’s pronunciation of the letter “z” (and thus clearly amenable to the German-as-such). How come absurd ?

  14. XML is a false acronym anyway, standing for eXtensible Markup Language.

  15. Albanian has xixëllonjë ‘firefly’, e.g. in this video. For other languages which might sport initial x, this map could be a starting guide (though it omits minority languages).

  16. David Marjanović says:

    You are suggesting that the X might have been intended to indicate a /ds/ pronunciation ?

    No, I’m suggesting that |ds| became /ts/, and /ts/ promptly became /ks/ because there was and still is no word-initial /ts/ in Low Franconian. This /ks/ was then written X.

    Albanian uses x for /dz/ and xh for /dʒ/.

  17. More open-access books:
    http://www.oapen.org/home

    Eg:
    Spreading the Written Word: Mikael Agricola and the Birth of Literary Finnish
    http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=617155

  18. Language Dispersal Beyond Farming
    Robbeets, Martine; Savelyev, Alexander

    Why do some languages wither and die, while others prosper and spread? Around the turn of the millennium a number of archaeologists such as Colin Renfrew and Peter Bellwood made the controversial claim that many of the world’s major language families owe their dispersal to the adoption of agriculture by their early speakers. In this volume, their proposal is reassessed by linguists, investigating to what extent the economic dependence on plant cultivation really impacted language spread in various parts of the world. Special attention is paid to “tricky” language families such as Eskimo-Aleut, Quechua, Aymara, Bantu, Indo-European, Transeurasian, Turkic, Japano-Koreanic, Hmong-Mien and Trans-New Guinea, that cannot unequivocally be regarded as instances of Farming/Language Dispersal, even if subsistence played a role in their expansion

    http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=1000295

  19. Kvensk grammatikk
    Söderholm, Eira

    Kvensk grammatikk is a comprehensive presentation of the structure of the Kven language, a Baltic-Finnic minority language in Norway. The grammar has been reviewed and approved by Kvensk språkting, the decision-making body for the school norm of Kven.

    Kvensk grammatikk er en utførlig presentasjon av strukturen i kvensk, som er et finskbeslekta nasjonalt minoritetsspråk i Norge. Grammatikken er gjennomgått og godkjent av Kvensk språkting, vedtaksorganet for skolenormalen i kvensk.

    http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=640594

  20. AJP Crown says:

    Recently Xander has become a popular alternative shortening of Alexander. By popular I mean there’s one on the telly in England: Xander Armstrong, but they may be all over the place. It would work for Lysander, after the Spartan, but maybe not with an X.

    In Norway and Germany no one uses the verb to xerox. They say ‘to copy.’ They also say ‘cola’ rather than Coke, which is just asking to be fucked over with a cheap imitation, imo. To xerox may already have come & gone in English, I don’t xerox enough nowadays to know.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    “Xander,” if pronounced “Zander,” presumably works as a clipped form because of the interaction of: a) conventionally pronouncing initial “X” as /z/ in words like Xerxes and xylophone etc.; and b) the voicing of the “X” in Alexander, i.e. it’s often pronounced Alegzander not Aleksander. Yet the latter phenomenon doesn’t prevent devoicing in more traditional clipped forms, e.g. “Alex” is pronounced Aleks not Alegz, and “Sandy” not “Zandy.” (And in Russian Sasha not Zasha or Zazha, although I don’t know if Russian voices the ks/gz in the middle of the full version.)

  22. The Russian form is Aleksandr, no voicing.

  23. Sasha and Shura are both common nicknames, hence the jokily combined “Sashura” used as a moniker here by Aleksandr Anichkin.

  24. AJP Crown says:

    I might be wrong but I think Sashura has always been called that by both friends & family. It’s not just here (not that you said it was).

  25. Sashura wrote:

    It’s a contraction of two common diminutives – Sasha and Shura. For me it’s a take-up – I was teased as Sashurka and Sashuravi by two different people for different reasons. (Shuravi is the Dari – Afghan/Persian – nickname/word for Russians/Soviets. I think it means ‘council’, hence Soviet.)

  26. And January First-of-May:

    (Of course, the “Sashura” form is very rare today – I can’t think of anyone who goes by it other than that one LH regular – and “Aleksasha” appears to be even rarer.)

  27. AJP Crown says:

    The poet Blok was one famous Sashura.

    “I’m Blok.”
    “Well take a break and work on something else for a change.”
    No wonder he’d rather be known as Sashura.

  28. There’s a character in a Martin Amis novel, I forget which, named Xan Meo. It’s supposed to sound exotic, but Xan is short for Alexander and Meo is a known English surname (ultimately a shortening of Bartolomeo and the like). There was a London-born snooker player Tony Meo.

  29. AJP Crown says:

    Yellow Dog. There’s also a Joseph Andrews in that one.

  30. AmE “Xerox” is BrE “photocopy” and AmE “Kleenex” is BrE “tissue”.

    I had written “Brits refuse to genericise any trademark with x in the spelling.” but I’ll have to Tipp-Ex that out.

  31. Hardly anyone xeroxes any more. We all photocopy.

  32. AJP Crown says:

    To hoover was popular in England when when I were a lad, though my family electroluxed (we were weird).

    I’m pretty sure in the 70s I used to xerox the proceedings in parliament every summer as a student job when the Hansard printers went on strike (they did it every August, like the French air-traffic controllers).

    I’ll have to Tipp-Ex that out
    In America you can White that Out, a trennbar erasure.

  33. John Cowan says:

    When I was attending a training course given by Xerox in Silicon Valley for a couple of weeks back in the mid-80s, I asked my instructor (without thinking about it too much) “Do you have a xerox machine around here?” I was firmly corrected by the Xerox employee: “You mean a copier.” And of course they did, and of course it was a Xerox® copier.

    (You are only supposed to use trademarked words as adjectives, as in “Sanka® brand decaffeinated coffee” (a phrase used to distraction in their TV ads), but of course this does not apply to a company name.)

  34. That was magnificent.

  35. AJP Crown says:

    Wow. Better than 90 mins of Netflix. Court reporter = Best Supporting Actress.

  36. I remember reading some years ago that X was being associated with success, perhaps because it is suXess. At least to an English ear. That was why they spelled their Citroen Xsara.

  37. “what did alphabet books do about the letter X before X-rays? ”

    Very interesting article. They didn’t have one example that I came across once in a pre-20th century alphabet book: X for Xiphias. Xiphias = swordfish.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    Xiphias gladius even, “sword sword”.

  39. xiphias was in fact listed, from “Theodore Howard’s ABC”; alongside xebec and Xylocopa, which as you all know is the Carpenter bee.

  40. Stu Clayton says:

    The German name Blaue Holzbiene is unimaginative. Carpenter bee is better. But Pelzbiene = “fur bee” recovers some aesthetic ground.

  41. I wonder when they started to call hotels Xanadu.

  42. AJP Crown says:

    After Citizen Kane came out, is my guess. I doubt it has much to do with Dave Dee, Dozy Mick & Ti(t)ch or whassit, Alph the sacred river.

  43. Stu Clayton says:

    They say it was a real shang-doozy of a palace.

  44. AJP Crown says:

    Take that with a pinch of salt. Trump said the same thing about Buckingham Palace and that’s totally falling to bits; damp, peeling plaster, threadbare carpets, electric 2-bar heaters to stop the dogs shivering etc.

  45. Stu Clayton says:
  46. David L says:

    Poor Beaky, the Forgotten One.

  47. There are some bizarre people in the music business:

    In summer 1964, the British songwriters Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley became interested in recording them. The band was set up in the studio to make recordings with Joe Meek. These recording sessions failed to get off the ground as an interview with Dave Dee stated that Meek “had very strange recording techniques. He wanted us to play the song at half speed and then he would speed it up and put all these little tricks on it. We said we couldn’t do it that way. He exploded, threw coffee all over the studio and stormed up to his room. His assistant [Patrick Pink] came in and said, ‘Mr Meek will not be doing any more recording today.’ That was it. We lugged all our gear out and went back home”.[4] While these recording sessions proved unsuccessful they eventually gained a recording contract with Fontana Records.

  48. AJP Crown says:

    Joe Meek, Britain’s answer to Phil Spector. Peter Grant, who had enormous ears but no professional ethics said all the record execs producing Led Zep were REALLY bent (I don’t know if he was including Ahmet Ertegun, I hope not).

    Poor Beaky was well out of it. They were irritating but not as total rubbish as Herman’s Hermits.

  49. John Cowan says:

    It’s just not in the cards for there to be a Fab Five, I guess. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (who were called that because they couldn’t agree on a collective name) had gone about as fur as they could go.

  50. Stu Clayton says:

    Shangduzy
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shangdu

    Raising the link count cap to 5 don’t amount to much, since AKismet still strips out the URLs at its whim.

  51. Another OA book:

    The Latin New Testament
    A Guide to its Early History, Texts, and Manuscripts
    H. A. G. Houghton
    https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-latin-new-testament-9780198744733

    More titles:
    https://global.oup.com/academic/open-access/titles/

  52. It’s just not in the cards for there to be a Fab Five, I guess.

    Oi, what about these blokes?

  53. Owlmirror says:

    Hm. I am interested in seeing this https-stripping phenomenon.

    Shangduzy

  54. Owlmirror says:

    Hm. I am interested in seeing this https-stripping phenomenon.

    . . . I think Akismet doesn’t like it if I post a link that someone else posted. Or at least, my attempt to post the link @June 16, 2019 at 12:48 am in the form from June 15, 2019 at 2:45 pm just vanished.

    One more attempt. Maybe it wants more text?

    Shangduzy

  55. Owlmirror says:

    Hm. I am interested in seeing this https-stripping phenomenon.

    . . . I think Akismet doesn’t like it if I post a link that someone else posted. Or at least, my attempt to post the link @June 16, 2019 at 12:48 am in the form from June 15, 2019 at 2:45 pm just vanished.

    One more attempt. Maybe it wants more text?

    Dang. Akismet says NOPE.

    OK, how about a different link? Let me try something . . .

    Goleuedigion Bafaria

  56. Owlmirror says:

    Hm. I am interested in seeing this URL removal phenomenon.

    . . . I think Akismet doesn’t like it if I post a link that someone else posted. Or at least, my attempt to post the link @June 16, 2019 at 12:48 am in the form from June 15, 2019 at 2:45 pm just vanished.

    One more attempt. Maybe it wants more text?

    Dang. Akismet says NOPE.

    OK, how about a different link? Let me try something . . .

    Goleuedigion Bafaria

  57. Owlmirror says:

    WT actual F? Can I post anything?

    Did my previous attempts go to moderation or the bit bucket?

  58. Owlmirror says:

    Does Akismet think that any reference to “stripping” means ecdysian performances?

  59. They were in moderation, and I’ve freed them all so the development of your (completely justified) irritation is manifest.

  60. Owlmirror says:

    Thanks. I think.

    I now strongly suspect that the URL was removed from Stu’s links, as it was from “Goleuedigion Bafaria”, because of some sort of typo in the part that wasn’t the URL. I actually typed, deliberately, hfer= rather than the appropriate href=, and as can now be seen, the result is text bracketed by the <a> tag but with no trace of a URL.

    Note that I am not sure that that’s exactly what Stu did. It might have been a space where there should be none, or the wrong kind of quote delimiting the URL, or unbalanced quotes, or whatever. I don’t have the time or energy to try all the different possibilities right now. But I would recommend examining any links carefully for such problems in future.

  61. John Cowan says:

    Hat: Five I grant you, but Fab not so much: as one of the comments on that YouTube page says, they never went anywhere. There’s a theory that the Fab Four align with the Jungian personality types: John as thinking, Paul as feeling, George as intuiting, Ringo as sensing.

    One of my email signatures:

    Consider the matter of Analytic Philosophy. Dennett and Bennett are well-known. Dennett rarely or never cites Bennett, so Bennett rarely or never cites Dennett. There is also one Dummett. By their works shall ye know them. However, just as no trinities have fourth persons (Zeppo Marx notwithstanding), Bummett is hardly known by his works. Indeed, Bummett does not exist. It is part of the function of this and other e-mail messages, therefore, to do what they can to create him.

  62. Hat: Five I grant you, but Fab not so much: as one of the comments on that YouTube page says, they never went anywhere.

    True, but I will point out that the Rolling Stones started out with five members.

  63. Stu Clayton says:

    Note that I am not sure that that’s exactly what Stu did.

    D’oh, I’ve been typing http= instead of href= when posting from my phone. On my notebook I use my own macro in UltraEdit, written years ago.

    I hate this low-level crap. I’ve been working in Java for 20 years and don’t know the difference between >> and >>>, ‘coz of how I don’t need to. Register shifting is done by the hired help.

  64. Owlmirror says:

    As the nerds of yore might exclaim, DWIM! But that has its own problems. . .

    So: DWIMC! Or in other words, implement mind-reading AI, presumably friendly and well-meaning.

  65. Owlmirror says:

    It used to be that WordPress used to show a list of allowed tags along with the comment box, including full syntax, which was at least useful for that <a> tag. I’m not sure what happened to that occasionally useful assist.

    Anyway, here they are, and some additional detail. Not all of them are that useful; some have hidden features, like the “title=” attribute I used above.

    As it says on the second link:

    Comments are basically dialogue; it’s not likely that you’ll ever need anything fancy or far-fetched in a comment. But anyway it should be clarified that all those html restrictions apply to commenting as a visitor: when commenting on your own blog, you can use all the html allowed in posts.

    Which is why languagehat, and only languagehat, can use the img tag.

  66. *feels a sense of overweening power*

  67. AJP Crown says:

    The Jungian personality types: John as thinking, Paul as feeling, George as intuiting, Ringo as the one who wanted to open a chain of women’s hairdressers when the Beatles thing was over.

  68. @AJP Crown: As somebody who was born a few years after the Beatles had already broken up, so that I only see them through the lens of later events and revelations, I must say that John’s personality always seems to have struck me as almost pure id. (Jung, of course, did not believe in the id as such, but—at least as far as “depth psychology” goes—Freud was right and Jung was wrong.)

    Regarding links. Akismet strips out any misformed URLs automatically, but it leaves the “<a>” and the corresponding closing tag wherever they are placed. This gives the semblance of a link, but it does not actually go anywhere. Whenever I post a link, I always check to make sure it is correct. When it is not, I immediately edit it back in; the text in the edit box has whatever incorrect syntax I included with the link (such as a missing close quote) complete stripped out, so I do not always know what I mistyped the first time.

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