Essay: Does the English language really need the letter X?

X is a quirky letter of the alphabet.

I recently had an interesting interaction with one of my biology students. He had written a laboratory report in which he repeated spelled the plural of "matrix" as "matrixes." Knowing my own mind in these things, I crossed out the first instance of this misspelling and wrote in the margin of his paper, "It's spelled 'matrices.' "

When the student saw my notation, he shook his head slowly and despondently. Then he looked up at me. "I hate the letter X," he said, and it was clear that he wasn't joking.

Well, X is a curious letter, certainly a movable feast as far as pronunciation is concerned. Sometimes it stands its ground, as when some people pronounce it like the name of the letter itself: "X-avier" for "Xavier." At others, it horns in on the perfectly serviceable "ks" or "cs" sound, as in, well, "matrix." It can also be silent, as in the imported word "faux." And it has been known to have Z-envy – "xylophone."

Confusing, yes, but certainly not a reason to dislike it. Language is, after all, a game with many twists and turns. As an example, recall the old saw about the relative positions of "i" and "e": Use "i" before "e" except after "c" or when sounded like "a" as in neighbor or weigh." Great advice, until one bumps up against a word like "protein." Suddenly, the game proceeds in a different direction.

But back to the letter X. Where did it come from, anyway? It seems to be a long story, involving Greeks, Semites, and even Etruscans. Wikipedia says that because it was placed near the end of the Greek alphabet, it was an innovation – I would guess – to clarify some sound that the other letters of the Greek alphabet weren't quite nailing. Be that as it may, the Etruscans borrowed the letter from the Greeks and, before their civilization died out, charitably conveyed it to the Romans. We got it from Latin.

But as for my woebegone student, "charitable" is not the most, er, charitable word to use. He did get over his frustration with the letter X, but little did he know that he was also making a point: The English language really doesn't need the letter X. For example, "ax." Couldn't this also be spelled "aks" (think of the plural of yak – yaks)? And xylophone, like zebra, would rest easier on people's spelling ability if the X would surrender unconditionally to Z.

But would the X-aviers of the world make a fuss? After all, it's one thing to alter the spelling of a tool or musical instrument, but quite another to monkey with something as personal as a name, especially in an age when parents are bending common monikers out of all recognition in an effort to make their kids stand out: Jhon versus John, Jaymes versus James, Toreesa versus Theresa. (I once met a student whose name was spelled "RobBurt." Even he winced when he had to spell it for someone.)

But "Ekzavier"? Well, I suppose, although I don't think most Americans would cotton to jux- (or juks-) -taposing a K and a Z. Besides, having an X at the beginning of one's name has a mildly intriguing air of mystery about it,

I don't think there is any danger of X dropping out of the alphabet. And I know of no formal recommendations in this regard.

In fact, I personally think it's a great letter, which has been repeatedly called upon for special duties. I recall old movies in which an illiterate person was asked to make his or her mark in lieu of a signature. Invariably he or she would carefully pen an X, even though there were 25 other letter choices.

When pirates unfurled their treasure maps, it was X and not Q that marked the spot. And when a phenomenon exists, or is postulated to exist, which defies the imagination or is, at first, poorly grasped, we use an X to denote the limits of our understanding: X-rays, planet X, The X-Files.

With all this in mind, I later received a call from my X-challenged student about another academic matter. I took the opportunity to share my ruminations on the letter X with him. He listened politely and finally volunteered, "Well, I guess it's not so big a deal."

I smiled into the receiver. "Exactly," I said. And then I spelled it out for him: "E-k-z-a-c-t-l-y."

I hope he didn't write that down.

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