Why we are so drawn to the letter 'X'

The World in Words
British band The xx performing at the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee.

British band The xx performing at the Pabst Theater, Milwaukee.

Amy via Flickr

If you want to bestow your new idea or product with a hip, futuristic aura, add an "x."

What would SpaceX be without the X? Or the iPhoneX? (OK, so the X is supposed to stand for ten but, colloquially, it's an X.)

And what about Latinx, a proposed gender-free, or gender-fluid, replacement for the gendered words, Latino and Latina? 

Who, or what, started this? Brand X? Generation X? Or perhaps René Descartes who decided the meaning of "X" depends on its context.   

Malcolm X Elementary School, Berkeley, CA.

Malcolm X Elementary School, Berkeley, CA.


Patrick Cox

Why were films X-rated? Why did a man called Malcolm Little rename himself Malcolm X?

In this episode of The World in Words, we trace the meandering semantic route of 'X' through the 20th and 21st centuries. We get help along with way from Afro-Latinx writer Jack Qu'emi, retired linguistics professor Ron Smyth and film historian Adrian Smith.

This is the second episode in our ongoing series about language and gender in collaboration with Across Women's Lives. You can find more stories about language and gender around the globe here.

Podcast contents

00:45 "Are are you a boy?" "No." "So are you a girl?" "No"

3:07 When Ron  was a kid at school, "X" meant wrong. "Something bad..something to get rid of."

5:00 How X-rated films came into being. Hint: not in the US. 

Poster for X the Unknown, a 1956 British film given an X certificate.

Poster for X the Unknown, a 1956 British film given an X certificate.  


Hammer Film Productions

9:15 X movies from the 1950s and 60s set and shot in nudist camps. 

10:56 The X rating comes to the US. 

13:25 42nd St and the segregation of X-rated zones. 

14:10 "X" is on the road to rehab. 

15:04 Why Latinx?

16:50 Alternatives: Latin*, Latin-, Latin@

17:38 Pronunciation issues. 

19:50 Is the "x" in Latinx rejecting gender? Or indicating a Cartesian variable?

23:20 Signing off in letters and emails: xx or xo? 

25:48 Jack Qu'emi is a maestrx.

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