LITERARY REVIEW

Xing things

WORDSPEAK

ANAND

WHILE a visitor from India was being driven around North America, he asked, after some observation, "What are these pedzings and deerzings?" It took some time for his host to understand that the person was referring to roadside signs "Ped Xing" and "Deer Xing," meaning pedestrian crossing and deer crossing. From then on, for some of us, a crossing is always a zing.

In remote parts of North America, I have seen Moose Xing, Ducks Xing and even Turtles Xing, that warn motorists to go slow on stretches where these animals might cross the road. In Himachal Pradesh I once saw the sign: Leopard Xing. I wonder whether motorists slowed down or speeded up after seeing that warning!

The letter X has been used for various purposes. Since one use has long intrigued me, let's begin with why do Xs sometimes (esp. at the end of a letter) signify kisses? It seems that ever since documents came into existence, X has been used in western nations as the signature of a person who could not write, which would mean until a couple of hundred years ago. Kissing the X represented an oath to fulfil obligations specified in the document, and the X and the kiss eventually became synonymous. Another explanation is that the X means a kiss because it represents a stylised drawing of two mouths touching!

An X-like character in the Greek alphabet is called chi (pronounced kee). Chi has been used by theologians as an abbreviation for Christ (Xristos in Greek). It was thought that the X in Xmas represented the cross, but more about that in the next "Wordspeak" column.

The use of "-30-" for the end of a text first appeared in the late 19th Century. In order to indicate the end of a story before transmitting it or submitting it for publication, it was necessary to have a code for the end that was not a part of the text itself; hence XXX, which was unlikely to occur as a part of the actual story. XXX came to be read as 30 because the meaningless Xs are also the Roman numerals for the number 30. In due course, thirty or 30 developed its own figurative use, especially in journalese: besides meaning "the end of a transmission or story", it could mean "the end (of anything)", as "the end of a work shift" or even "the end of life; death".

X was also used to indicate incorrectness, to "cross-out" or to mark a section of the text that was to be deleted. Since this often was something objectionable, obscene or pornographic material came to be marked with an X. That could be reason for pornographic films being given an X-Certificate. More Xs signify hardcore or extreme obscenity. In cartoons and drawings an alcoholic beverage ("booze") is represented by an XXX sign, but for a reason. In France, the star ratings represented the age and the quality of a good brandy or cognac, but X was used by 19th Century British distillers to denote the alcoholic content of their liquor. More Xs meant more kick!

In literature, X has been used to show the scene of a crime, the hiding place of a treasure, or some other special location. In Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, the hidden treasure on a map was marked by an X, giving rise to the catchphrase "x marks the spot." Since then, a mysterious or unknown person may be called Mr. or Madam X; inventions or discoveries waiting to be named are the X planet or the X factor. Wilhelm Roentgen called a "new" kind of radiation from a cathode-ray tube X-rays. A cursory search (please note the pun) on the Internet found X in the name of 330 movies, 34 TV-movies, 37 made-for-video movies, 51 TV series (including "The X-Files" shown in India), and 27 video games.

Indian media uses the term Gen-Xers, but I found that few knew what it originally meant. The term, which describes a group of people born between 1961 and 1972 typified by a college education, dissatisfaction with career opportunities, and pessimism, came into vogue after the title of a book by Douglas Coupland, Generation X. Coupland explained that the term came from the final chapter of a sociological book on class structure in America entitled Class by Paul Fussell. Coupland writes, "In his final chapter, Fussell named an `X' category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money, and social climbing that so often frames modern existence. The citizens of X had much in common with my own socially disengaged characters; hence the title."

Email the writer at: anand@journalist.com

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