Wednesday, December 12, 2018
A Brief History of X
I first became interested in semiotics from the story of Cain and Abel in the Bible. Of course I had never heard of “semiotics” at the time, and I am still not sure I understand everything meant by the term as used by some of my more learned colleagues. Looking at its Greek root, I take it to mean the study or theory of signs, the most numerous of which are the words we use in our attempts at oral or written communication. But of course there are also pictorial traffic signs, signs of good or bad weather, signs of life, signs of the times, and many others. One of my favorite characters in Chaucer, who has spent some hours with an itchy mouth, says “that’s a sign of kissing, at the very least”. Anyway, when Cain killed his brother Abel, God set a “sign” upon the murderer (Genesis 4:15). That is the word used in the medieval Latin Bible. In the Authorized English version the word is mark, and over the centuries there has been a good deal of inconclusive speculation as to what the sign or mark of Cain was. It had a puzzling ambiguity. Though it identified a murderer, its purpose was to protect him from anyone who might set out to kill him. Anyone who dared to effect revenge for Abel would be “punished seven times worse”! But what was the “mark of Cain?”
The old rabbis, later followed by Christian exegetes, suggested various possibilities. One was that it was the image of a dog—a late suggestion pretty obviously influenced by the accidental similarity of the name “Cain” to the Greek (kuon) and Latin (canis) words for “dog”. More common was the idea that the “mark” was merely a hideous facial expression, accompanied by a palsied tremor, but this, too, was probably classically induced by a “dog word”—meaning something like “dog-faced” or “smiling in a dog-like manner”. Many commentators agree that the mark, whatever it was, was on Cain’s forehead.
That may get us somewhere. A scholarly essay I’m working on just now reviews the ideas that led Francis of Assisi to adopt the tau (a Greek and Hebrew letter equivalent to the Latin “T”) as his personal signature. It was in imitation of the mysterious figure (Ezekiel 9:2), a “man…clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn at his belt”. The function of this scribe is to walk through Jerusalem and to “mark tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.” Only this small band of penitents will be spared from general slaughter.
There is another important appearance of the forehead-writer in the Apocalypse, but I must move on to his secular traces, which are numerous and surprising. One way of crossing two squiggles made a T. Another formed the Greek letter chi, the initial of “Christ” in that language, and the parallel to Latin X. Since there are quite a few words relating to Christ in Christianity, scribes were happy to use X as an abbreviation and save a little time with things like the “Count of Monte Xo,” “Xofer Columbus”, and even “Merry Xmas”—I speak of many years ago, before the regime of the PC police. Already in ancient times several of the minimalist letters had been used to mean any graphic mark or sign. That is, tau was a letter, but as a word it meant “mark” or “sign”. The Vulgate phrase “the sign Thau” is an innocent pleonasm, like “the River Avon”—afon being the forgotten Celtic word for “river”. When a Roman teenager put together his 1:1000 scale model of a trireme or whatever, the instruction was to “insert fold T into slot X” or “make sure the tri jot is correctly aligned with the reme tittle” or something like that.
So X—now no longer necessarily thought of as the sign of a cross—became the sign or mark for anything you wanted to sign or mark, beginning with the mathematical unknown that you were supposed figure out with the help of Y. And of course X marks the spot where the body was found. Our own particular, individual signs are our signatures. But what about illiterates? During World War II one of my aunts worked for some alphabetical New Deal outfit doing good among the primitive mountaineers on the south bank of the White River in northern Arkansas. She used to speak of the “exers”—not a generation of aging hippies, but people who signed all legal papers with an “X”. I think it was the immortal Irving Berlin who wrote: “My uncle out in Texas can’t even spell his name; He signs his checks with X’s, but they cash them all the same.” More recently a Country and Western song entitled “All My Ex’s Live in Texas” was nominated for a Grammy. This has absolutely nothing to do with my subject, but it is a sobering reminder of just how few words rhyme with Texas.