Moment, “The Secret History of X & O”

March 20, 2014

Nadine Epstein, “The Secret History of X & O” (Moment, March/April 2014)

But the timing—late-19th and early-20th century—of the debut of the “o” for hug may, however, be close. According to the research of linguist Ben Zimmer, executive producer of and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, the earliest mention of an “o” for hugs is 1905. His search of online databases came up with a 1905 Missouri Supreme Court case—The State v. James E. Kelley. Among the evidence was this letter:

“10,000  million X O
Yours forever
I will kiss Cicil for you now.”

And the court record added:

“Prosecutrix, her mother and a banker in Bolivar testified that this letter was in defendant’s handwriting. Prosecutrix also testified that defendant told her that when he wrote X and O he meant hugs and kisses.”

Ben Zimmer ventures a guess that the pairing of “x” and “o” in noughts and crosses may have led to the addition of “o” to “x.” Just as noughts and crosses go together, so do hugs and kisses. “At some time ‘x’ stood for kisses and if you wanted to expand that to hugs and kisses ‘o’ became a reasonable choice,” he says. Another possibility is that the “o” was added because it is iconic, that is, a symbol that is a representation of the thing itself. Zimmer also adds that there are those who believe the “o” stands for kiss and “x” for hugs, which may stem from the fact that we say “hugs and kisses” as opposed to “kisses and hugs.” This, he says, is contrary to the historical record: It is likely that we say hugs first because it has fewer syllables. In English, paired phrases usually start with the shorter word and end with the longer.

Read the rest here.

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