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An Alphabet of Feminism #24: X is for X

2011 April 4



X is for X is unique among Alphabet posts in that the letter does not stand in for a word – like A for Amazon and B for Bitch – because, in fact, the letter is the word.

The Eleanor Cross at Charing Cross - an imposing gothic tower made out of stone, replacing an original of wood.

The Eleanor Cross replica at Charing Cross, London.

Yet this word – simultaneously standing in for itself and existing as an independent unit of meaning – is possibly one of the most widely-used symbols of all. How exactly this might be relevant to a consideration of feminism will be herein considered, but I hope my indulgent readers will excuse a slightly cheeky use of theoretical thinking. We all know each other well enough by now, don’t we?


The most straightforward significance of X is, as Latin-fans will know, ‘ten’ / ’10’ (I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X). Two tens side by side is XX, or twenty / 20. How many tens can you think of? Ten lost tribes of Israel, ten commandments, ten plagues of Egypt, ten dimes in a dollar, ten years in a decade. It’s a pleasingly round number, and an easy times table, even if it frequently loses out to ‘twelve’ / ’12’ in mystic significance.

But x is not simply a linguistic unit: it is also a visual one. Two diagonal lines; two Vs touching each other; a crossover; a cross; a cross-roads. Like ‘0’, which means ‘oh’, ‘o’, ‘zero’ and ‘nothing’, it represents one of its meanings aesthetically: it is a cross. Thus King’s X and Charing X (this last was named for the Eleanor Cross built on the site by Richard I to commemorate the funeral procession of his wife) – but, perhaps because of its relationship to the Greek letter ‘Chi’ (‘Ch-‘), which is the first letter of ‘Christ’, x can also signify he-who-died-on-a-cross (‘X-mas‘), although it actually looks more like the St. Andrew cross, which makes up the Scottish flag.


In numerical terms, though, x can also take on the role of an unknown quantity – ‘Find the value of x‘, where the x is italicised to mark its distinction from ‘x’. It is ‘unknown’, not ‘multiply’, an absent value rather than a pluralised one. Here too, we bump into a common significance x has: it represents absence. It is the legal signature of the illiterate (‘I cannot write; here is the x that represents “yes, I agree” but also “no, I cannot write”), and the standard stand-in for a quantity that is unknown or not yet provided (‘Dear X’).

The unknown or unstated quantity has also fed over into censorship: an X-rated film is one only suitable for those aged over 18. It was replaced in 1982 by the ’18’ certificate, but such certificates have frequently been seen by directors as more of a target than an impediment: Hitchcock’s extremely grim Frenzy (1972) was conceived to coincide with the USA’s revised R-rating so that the Master of Suspense could claim his place in the pantheon of horror with a badge of censored honour.

Movie Poster for Hitchcock's Frenzy, showing a screaming woman surrounded by graphic swirls and circles while a man runs away.

Hitchcock's Frenzy.

This was his penultimate film, and the only one to carry an ’18’ certificate in the UK or receive an ‘X-rating’ after the age restriction was moved up to 18 in 1971. It’s about a rapist serial-killer. If the accusation of misogyny leveled at him impedes your appreciation of Hitchcock’s films as a whole, I would not recommend this one. It features an extended rape scene shot with a disturbing emphasis on its supposed eroticism, and some true masterpieces of misogyny in the dialogue.

There’s also this scene, which features Babs’ death: from the moment Rust enters the frame we know she’s dead, and the line which precedes the attack, ‘You’re my kind of woman’ (whose results we have already seen in graphic form on his previous victim) precedes one of Hitchcock’s most underrated panning shots: the camera backs out down the stairs and out into the street in what the director himself dubbed ‘Bye Bye To Babs‘. This is the second of the film’s rape-murders and one no less disturbing for being ‘exed out’ – its self-censorship makes its own point.

There is a beautifully dark irony in how this most censored of Hitchcock’s films is also one focused almost entirely around silencing and deleting women – exing them by using the Latin prefix ‘out of, from, utterly, beyond’ (ex), thus, in verbal form, ‘to delete, to cross off’ (as in ‘to x‘, to ‘cross’, which can also be ‘to thwart’ – ‘Don’t cross me!’). This is the x-form that gives us ‘ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, ex-wife‘, so that the x acts as a negative, canceling out the word that follows it, making the spousestranger, and the act of so doing is, in fact, an act of deletion – ‘exing‘ someone, crossing them out (indeed, we frequently drop the specifics altogether, don’t we? ‘My ex’.)

If you buy the theory that Hitch was himself a Horrible Misogynist (which, with regret, I think I must – in this film at least) – the fact that he chose a kind of Jack the Ripper style return to his London roots for his attempt on the R-rating is a masterpiece of gyno-negation (yes I made that compound up, but I’m running with it):

Solicitor in Pub: Let’s hope he slips up soon.
Doctor in Pub: In one way I rather hope he doesn’t. We haven’t had a good juicy series of sex murders since Christie. And they’re so good for the tourist trade. Foreigners somehow expect the squares of London to be fog-wreathed, full of hansom cabs and *littered* with ripped whores, don’t you think?

Frenzy (1972)

Heart Skipped A Beat

It is, then, fantastically dark yet undeniably fitting that x is frequently appropriated as a symbol of sexytimes: XXX (thirty) means ‘extra strong’, via an x homonym extra. Thus it is an identifier for pornography and x-rated movies, and, in the form .xxx is a ‘sponsored top level domain’ (what?) intended as a voluntary option for porn sites (instead of .com, etc), to allow clear classification and prevent The Children accessing such sites ‘by accident’. The difficulty here, of course, is that it requires binary identification of What Is Porn and What Is Not (of which more presently).

In lower-case form, xxx connects love and lust: most people know of x = kiss (I’ve always wondered if there’s something in ‘k’ being an ‘x’ that may have hit a wall), but Wikipedia claims ‘xxx’ means ‘I love you’ through the power of three. Like ‘heart’, which is a very different thing from ‘love’ (‘I heart NY’), ‘X’ is frequently something distinct from ‘kiss’, and rarely a simple representation of it. Just look at Holly Valance, whose 2002 single ‘Kiss Kiss‘ (and its predictably lips-obsessed video) repeatedly blocks out what comes after ‘my…’, replacing it with a ‘mwah mwah’ which is frequently not even mimed in the video, and, as the song progresses, gets increasingly mixed out, blanked out and fragmented.

Don’t play the games that you play
‘Cause you know that I won’t run away
Why aren’t you asking me to stay
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna give you my (mwah mwah)

– Holly Valance, ‘Kiss Kiss’ (2002)

Where this is all leading is, of course, ‘tonight I’m gonna give you my XX’… which is also ‘my XXX’. Add to this the traditional association of mouths and vaginas (whose natural endpoint is the vagina dentata, whence a man ‘always leaves diminished’) and you have a really rather porno-tastic song all round (yet one that would never come with a domain name culminating with .xxx).

Basic Space

By contrast, xoxo means ‘kiss, hug, kiss, hug’ (less sexual all round) and is another way of using letters as symbols for something else – O is ‘hug’ because it enfolds itself, yet that self-enclosure also makes it 0 = nothing. To borrow the assumptions of the seventeenth century, this ‘nothing’ is also equivalent to ‘cunt’, since it is an empty space (as in Rochester’s poem ‘Upon Nothing‘, which describes ‘nothing’ as ‘a great uniteD What‘ (pronounce ‘what’ to rhyme with ‘cat’ to get ‘pussy‘)). Similarly, in Hamlet, Ophelia tells the protagonist she thinks ‘nothing’ – which, he replies, is ‘a pretty thought to lie between maids’ legs’, and (given that ‘th’ was frequently pronounced ‘t’ in the sixteenth century), in the light of this you may wish to reconsider the meaning of Shakespeare’s title ‘Much Ado About Nothing’. There is a curious irony here in the use of ‘x’ and ‘o’ side by side: one crosses out and refuses, the other is ‘nothing’ in the first place.


You have all been mighty patient, but here I draw towards a conclusion: x is a letter so many-layered as to refuse any comprehensive analysis. But this is itself quite appropriate, because those of its meanings I have looked at here all hinge around negation or deletion. That these should happen to focus around sex and (specifically) the vagina is not necessarily something intrinsic to the letter, but it certainly tells you a lot about how that letter is used. Blocked out, crossed out; rendered titillating or exciting; exclusive or exclusionary – exit, stage right.

illustration: a pre-raphaelite style woman with long light brown hair in a white dress, which has red hemming round the skirt, stands behind a giant red X, looking confused.

NEXT WEEK: Y is for Yes

14 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    April 4, 2011

    In popular culture, it seems to me, the letter is used far more to represent an unknown than to represent negation or censorship. See The X-Files or The X-Men (the latter of which being a deeply ironic title for a comic which for much of it’s run emphasised strong female characters). Of course, one might draw a connection between this an the gynocentric connotations of the letter to arrive at the idea of the feminine as the unknown, and in traditional male view, unknowable (how often are we bombarded with the idea that men can never understand women while women know exactly how men tick?).

    And, of course, damn dirty mutants.

    I was a little surprised there was no mention of the letter “X” as it’s used in actual genetics, to indicate the female chromosome, as in the pair “XX” – it seemed to me you were approaching some comment on it then went in a different direction, but it connects to a lot of what you did delve into.

    And, of course, terribly disappointed by the lack of xylophones.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      April 4, 2011

      XX/XY chromosomes led Valeria Solanas (in the SCUM Manifesto) to assert that “the male is an incomplete female”.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Edward Lear produced five alphabets in three of them X is (simply) for King Xerxes. In his final (shortest, and only unillustrated) alphabet, we find this:

    “X said, ‘Some double XX ale would be best of all!'”

    The remaining alphabet combines Xerxes and double XX ale:

    The Excellent Double-extra XX
    imbibing King Xerxes, who lived a
    long while ago

    The picture shows a king imbibing beer from a very large tankard marked XX.

    I think that XX ale was especially strong.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 4, 2011

    Possibly Poe’s most peculiar story is something called “X-ing a Paragrab”. One may need to turn to Poe’s Complete Tales in order to find it.

    It concerns a typographic practice of substituting an x for any letter missing from one’s stock. A newspaper editor composes a paragraph that does not contain the letter ‘e’, but includes the letter ‘o’ an enormous number of times. Only there is not a single ‘o’ in the newspaper office, so what emerges is truly bizarre. (How come they have sufficient of the letter ‘x’ is open to doubt.)

    In view of T is for Tea, it may be worth adding that the newspaper has the improbable name “The Tea-Pot”.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      April 5, 2011

      I’ve found the story online:

      Unfortunately, it’s reproduced without paragraph indentations, or spaces between paragraphs, which renders it difficult to read. What is more, it contains typos.

      I’ve copied and pasted to quote the two final paragraphs, correcting the errors I noticed. Poe’s XXX ale may have been even stronger than Edward Lear’s XX ale. The reference to a “devil” is to a printer’s devil (or apprentice)'s_devil

      The more common conclusion, however, was that the affair was, simply, X-traordinary and in-X-plicable. Even the town mathematician confessed that he could make nothing of so dark a problem. X, everybody knew, was an unknown quantity; but in this case (as he properly observed), there was an unknown quantity of X.

      The opinion of Bob, the devil (who kept dark about his having ‘X-ed the paragrab’), did not meet with so much attention as I think it deserved, although it was very openly and very fearlessly expressed. He said that, for his part, he had no doubt about the matter at all, that it was a clear case, that Mr. Bullet-head “never could be persuaded fur to drink like other folks, but vas continually a-svigging o’ that ere blessed XXX ale, and as a naiteral consekvence, it just puffed him up savage, and made him X (cross) in the X-treme.”

  4. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 4, 2011

    As Team Bad Rep have a taste for piracy it seems worth mentioning that fictional pirates place an X on their maps to show where the treasure is buried. Of course Lady Killigrew wouldn’t have done that.

    • Miranda permalink*
      April 4, 2011

      I really must finish the next part of the pirate series!

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        April 4, 2011

        Yes, I’ve been wondering what’s happened to the pirates. There’s a Little Britain sketch (from the period when it was still funny) in which David Walliams seeks to buy a pirate memory game. He rejects one game because “it’s too piratey for me”. I wondered whether the pirates you intended to feature had turned out to be too piratey for you. But perhaps that isn’t possible.

        • Miranda permalink*
          April 5, 2011

          They’re definitely happening, those posts – I just need a less knackering day job and to stop pushing aside writing in favour of only doing the editing on here :)

          Grace O’Malley, Cheng I Sao… they’re on draft, in need of completion (and drawings. Illustrations definitely need to happen, and with less rushing than the scribbly speeddoodling I did for Lady K!)

          • Pet Jeffery permalink
            April 5, 2011

            Perhaps the very talented Hodge could help with the illustrations, once she’s completed her alphabet.

  5. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 5, 2011

    On Alfred Hitchcock, I live in Leytonstone, where he was born. Mr Hitchcock hated Leytonstone, but that doesn’t prevent Leytonstone from being proud of him. The nearest petrol station to where I live displays a blue plaque stating that it’s built on the site of his birthplace. Leytonstone station is decorated with mosaics illustrating scenes from his films. I drew upon this in my novel “Tuerqui Again” (set perhaps two or three thousand years in the future):

    A quarter of an hour’s ride brought us into a smart and prosperous-looking village that must have been Lay Town Zone. The local constable, a fat man, leaned on his halberd and puffed at a pipe. Dashing Daniel brandished the warrant in his direction, at which the officer nodded affably. Just beyond his sentry box was an elaborate shrine decorated with obviously old mosaics, many of the colours still bright.

    “They show scenes in the life of Alfred the hatch cook, a local demigod,” Barguin told me. “There was something about his slaying a psycho during a rain shower, but I forget the details.”

    “How on earth do you know that?” I asked.

    “I was born in Hammer Town, just on the other side of the marshes. When I was little, my dad brought me through this way, selling fencing twine, lamp oil and cabbages.”

  6. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Xs and Os are not only kisses and hugs, but represent the two opponents in a game of noughts and crosses.

    It transpires that the circle and the cross are the easiest shapes for the human eye to distinguish. In the First World War, a more deadly game of noughts and crosses was played in the sky. The Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 (fought in Libya) was the first to use aeroplanes. But only the Italian side had aircraft, so there was no need for any national marking. In 1914, for the first time, a war was fought with aeroplanes used by both sides. If both sides were not to shoot at the unfortunate pilots, the machines needed to be marked with a national identity. Britain’s first such markings were the Union Jack. In practice, the military authorities found that anti-aircraft gunners failed to distinguish between this and the cross with which the Germans marked their aeroplanes. Hence, all of the allies adopted circular national insignia.

    I wonder whether, and to what extent, two world wars in which we were on the side of the noughts (against the crosses) served to reinforce the idea that the cross marked something unacceptable — as seen, for example, in the ‘X’ of X rated films.

    The cross marked on German aeroplanes was not a saltire cross (X). But the upright and saltire cross are easily interchangeable. Witness the ease with which gunners (in 1914) confounded the Union Jack (combining crosses of both kinds) with the upright German cross. Witness also how Charing Cross (an upright Eleanor cross) becomes Charing X on bus destination blinds.

    • Pet Jeffery permalink
      April 5, 2011

      But Xs and Os are not always opposed to one another. Both can stand for negation. If every answer in my long division test (something I could never do) was marked with an X, the total of those Xs at the end of the exercise was O.

  7. Pet Jeffery permalink
    April 6, 2011

    X is an enigma. A red X on schoolwork means “this is wrong”. A pencil X on a ballot paper means “this is the least wrong of the candidates”.

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