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X Is For What Now?: A Historical Inquiry You Probably Never Considered

You know this game: A is for Apple, B is for Banana, X is usually for Xylophone or X-ray. But as it turns out, these X words were coined in the nineteenth century. So what did people use to represent X before then?

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First, a bit of background:

X-ray: 1895

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In 1895, William Conrad Röntgen was experimenting with vaccuum tubes when he noticed that some invisible, unknown ray was causing a screen to fluoresce when placed near aluminium. Not entirely sure what he was observing, Röntgen called them "X-rays." The name stuck, and Röntgen went on to win the Nobel Prize. But the word probably wasn't a likely candidate for alphabet books until taking x-rays became commonplace in doctor's offices. Ideally, it's nice to have a word that children will have a reason to use; I don't know about you, but I have never met a physicist under 4 years of age.

Xylophone: 1860s

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Wait, wait, xylophones have been around forever, right? Well, kind of. Xylophone-like instruments date back to antiquity, but the modern xylophone is a product of the mid-nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the word in 1866. Why xylophone? "Xylo" is from the Greek for wood, and "phone" essentially means sound or voice. It makes sense, doesn't it?

Prepare yourself. Here's a sampling of what they used before 1860:

X is for...yeah, got nothing.

A 1768 American edition of Tom Thumb's Play-Book contains two common ways of dealing with X. In the first instance, they outright ignored it. What do little kids know anyway? In the second, they went with an "ex" word: "expensive." Hey, it sounds like "x" when you say it aloud. It totally counts.

X is for Xerxes

Figuring the kiddies would either hear about him in history class or at Sunday school, another solution was "King Xerxes." For those of you who aren't in the know, Xerxes I of Persia ruled the Achaemenid Empire from 486 to 465 BC. He's also the king associated with the biblical story of Esther. This image is from an 1805 edition of Nurse Truelove's Christmas Box.

X is for Xacca-cockatoo

"Little kids like animals, right? Let's make an animal alphabet book! Oh crap, what are we going to do about X? Wait, wait. Hang on a sec... YES! There's this thing called a Xacca-cockatoo! Let's just run with it." Or at least, this is what I imagine the thought process was here. This image is from an 1815 edition of The Picture Alphabet, For Little Children.

X is for Xebec

A xebec is a type of sailing ship that dates back to the sixteenth century. Powered by a combination of oar and wind, these ships had had long bowsprits and mizzen masts that extended past the rear of the boat. In truth, they were pretty cool looking, which is why "xebec" turned out to be a popular choice in alphabet books. This particular image is from a card game called "The Game of Letters," circa 1893. And remember: "xylophone" had been around for a while by then!

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