My new column for the Visual Thesaurus, “The X Factor,” was inspired by the announcement last month of a new hybrid mobile device, the Nokia X. Why “X”? And why do many brand names depend on the twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet?
And, by the way, where did “Brand X” come from?
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers. (UPDATE: Not now!) Here’s an excerpt:
What makes X a branding elixir? Rarity is part of the story: fewer English words begin with X than with any other letter, which means an X brand will often have the cachet of distinctiveness.
X is also flexible. It can be pronounced /ex/ (Xfinity) or /z/ (Xyience Xenergy drink) or even /sh/ or /ch/, as in Chinese or Mexican names. Its meaning is adaptable, too. “X is pornography, the drug ecstasy, a former spouse, the signature of illiteracy, X out, cross out, the cross, an equation's unknown solution, off the charts, extra, extreme, and (in the exception exposing rule) kisses,” wrote advertising critic Leslie Savan in her 2005 book about pop language, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers. In 1637, the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes was the first to use x, y, and z to represent unknown quantities corresponding to the known quantities a, b, and c. By the 19th century, X had come to mean “unknown” in extra-mathematical contexts as well. In 1950, it acquired risqué overtones when a British regulatory agency recommended an X rating for adult films; the classification was adopted in the U.S. in 1968.
Related: Read my (non-paywalled) column on “XOXO,” the symbol for “hugs and kisses.”
Possibly related, but not included in the column: the popularity of baby names Xander, Xavier, Ximena, and Xiomara has surged in the last decade. (Hat tip: Baby Name Voyager.)