How the Letter X Became the Sexiest Letter in the Alphabet
For a letter that isn’t used a lot, X has always had a lot of meanings, going way back to long, long before an X-rating was a thing. It’s a simple symbol, two lines that cross, which means it crops up in most written languages. It’s the Roman numeral for 10, the Greek letter chi, and there are characters resembling it in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, old runic systems and, well, pretty much everything.
Due to its simplicity as a symbol, it could mean pretty much anything. It could be used as a number, an abbreviation for Christ (which, in Greek, begins with chi) or as a way of marking something as done — these last two meanings led us to the word “Xmas” and triple-distilled moonshine bottles being labeled with XXX. Even illiterate people could just about handle making a cross, so they’d sign their name with an X.
When algebra was codified in the 17th century, Rene Descartes (of “I think therefore I am” fame) used a lower-case X as a symbol for an unknown number, making its mysterious status somewhat “official.”
This was the meaning implied when Generation X was named, to reflect their perceived desire not to be defined. An essay by Paul Fussell, which indirectly (via Billy Idol and Douglas Coupland) led to the name, described “a category of people who wanted to hop off the merry-go-round of status, money and social climbing that so often frames modern existence.” Malcolm X adopted the letter as his surname to symbolize the mystery surrounding the true African lineage that had been stolen from him. In fact, at one point he and Redd Foxx worked in a kitchen together — one kitchen, two icons, three Xs.
Xclusivity Equals Xcellence
X is definitely a cool letter. Part of it stems from rarity — it’s the third least-used letter in the English language (after Z and Q), and would be the least used if not for the prefix ex-, which tends to come on cool, adventurous-sounding words — explicit, excessive, extramarital, extremities, exploration.
If treasure on a treasure map was marked with a T, it would make more sense, but you wouldn’t bother looking for it. Marked with an X, though? That shit’s exciting. (Probably never happened in real life though — Treasure Island author Robert Louis Stevenson invented the idea.)
The 1990s was a great period for fans of the letter — Gen X sat down to watch The X-Files and Xena: Warrior Princess (as well as, in Canada, Lexx, starring Xenia Seeberg as Xev, a ridiculous amount of Xs), or enjoyed the comics explosion spearheaded by X-Men (featuring characters such as Professor X, Weapon X, X-Man, the team X-Force and so on), or enjoyed seeing the wrestlers of D-Generation X , including X-Pac, make large X symbols across their crotches with their arms. In music, there’s X Japan, Xzibit, XXXTentacion, Lil Nas X, Static-X, XTC, X-Ray Spex, Terminator X, X-Ecutioners, DMX, The xx, Liberty X, MXPX and plenty, plenty more. Christina Aguilera briefly rebranded herself Xtina at one point.
If any other letter was drawn on the backs of people’s hands when entering bars to show that they were underage, there’s no way it would have gone on to be embraced as a symbol of a movement, but that’s exactly what happened with straight-edge — the Xs Sharpied onto young punks’ hands were adopted, tattooed on countless people and integrated into band names
Any movie franchise that reaches a 10th entry jumps on the opportunity to use an X, even if it’s gone nowhere near Roman numerals before (and even though, to use one of the internet’s most-repeated jokes of the last few years, the Fast & Furious franchise could have gone with Fast Ten: Your Seatbelts).
But more than cool, it’s sexy. It’s even in “sexy.” It’s 25 percent of sexy, 33 percent of sex and 300 percent of XXX.
XXX is not, and has never been, an official MPAA rating. X is, however, but was applied fairly widely to material deemed offensive, not just sexual content. The MPAA took its cue from the British Board of Film Classification, which originally had an H certificate signifying “Horrific” films — anything of a sexual nature was circulated unofficially so legitimate certification was irrelevant. The H was replaced in 1951 by an X, representing “explicit content,” but frequently applied to films that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now — films pushing anarchic or communist ideas were slapped with an X. (In 1982, they realized that they had made these films more appealing by using the very cool letter X, and replaced it with two certifications — an 18 for movies only suitable for adults, and R18 for pornography.)
In 1968, the MPAA was established in America and introduced the X rating (for “extreme” rather than “explicit”), but it wasn’t limited to sexual material at all — a lot of films that initially got an X rating were deemed more to be “morally objectionable.” However, as more and more European films were imported, with a more casual attitude toward nudity and sexual content, the suggestion very much became that an X-rated movie would be pretty hot stuff. Makers of B-movies and exploitation films recognized that an X-rating was almost an endorsement, adding to a movie’s appeal, so began walloping it all over their posters. The MPAA didn’t copyright it, so it was something of a free-for-all.
More Xs suggested filthier content, so makers of porn soon began touting their wares as being “XXX” — presumably any more than three seemed to dilute the impact or appear unreadable. While there has never been an official definition as to what defines XXX, sci-fi writer and pornography reviewer/producer William Rostler proclaimed in 1973 that an X-rating meant a legitimate movie, two Xs meant softcore and XXX hardcore.
The MPAA itself doesn’t use an X-rating anymore — in 1990, it was retired due to being unshiftably associated with porn rather than genuine movies that were only suitable for adults. NC-17 is now the highest it goes, and anything too extreme for that rating is released unrated (which can greatly affect where it will be shown or sold, admittedly much less of an issue in a digital era).
But “X-rated” is part of common parlance in a way that is somehow less lame than it easily could be — the presence of that incredibly cool letter gives it a real boost. Enough brands, apps and products have had Xs crowbarred into their names that the letter itself should have been sapped of all of its impact, but there’s still something there despite overuse. The third-last letter of the alphabet retains an ineffable coolness, a certain je ne sais quoi.
Or, if you like, a certain… X-factor.