In 1895, the physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered x-rays, a groundbreaking moment in medical history that would lead to myriad improvements to people’s health. Perhaps one overlooked benefit though was in relation to mental health, specifically of those tasked with making alphabet books. What did they do before X-rays? Xylophones, which have also been a popular choice through the twentieth century to today, are mysteriously absent in older works. Perhaps explained by the fact that, although around for millennia, the instrument didn’t gain popularity in the West (with the name of “xylophone”) until the early twentieth century. So to what solutions did our industrious publishers turn?
As we see below, in addition to drawing on names — be it historical figures, plants, or animals, all mostly of a Greek bent (X being there much more common) — there’s also some more inventive approaches. And some wonderfully lazy ones too.
Xerxes, Xantippe, and more…
As a figure of note, you might hope it would be your epic deeds accomplished that would lead to your name being uttered by students for millennia to come — not for the coincidence of the tricky letter with which your name began. But so it was for the Persian king Xerxes, who in the field of nineteenth-century alphabet books achieved what he could never quite achieve in fifth-century BC Athens, that is, domination. Though there was perhaps some small solace in that he was likely the very first historical figure of which many a child would learn.
Xanthippe, the supposedly “fiery” wife of Socrates also gets a good look in, often shown in a rage pouring a chamber pot over her husband’s head, which — according to legend – the philosopher accepted with a simple “After thunder comes the rain”.
Other historical figures too can be seen to rise through the ranks of their lesser initialed contemporaries. Here it is Pope Sixtus II (also spelt Xystus, which comes from the Greek word for “polished”).
Here it is a historical horse, which judging from its military context, most likely refers to the steed Hector rode in the Trojan War, though it might also refer to one of Achilles’ two horses, or the Xanthus that was one of the Mares of Diomedes.
We are not sure of the exact history of this figure known as Xany, but he seems to be associated with foolishness — perhaps a convenient mis-spelling of the more common “zany” (which itself refers to “Zanni”, a character type of Commedia dell’arte best known as a trickster).
The Natural World
Of course, the more Greek-orientated names of plants and animals were an option too — here we see Xanthium and Xylon (burdock and cotton), and Xiphias (swordfish).
As long as it is in there somewhere…
If not at the beginning then as long as there was an X in there somewhere that also seemed to be OK. All the better if it was in the form of “Ex” and so actually sounded out the letter itself.
The conveniently named XX ale makes a few appearances too. No-one’s totally sure from where this unusual name stems, but possibly it was originally more akin to a crucifix and marked on the barrels by the monks to indicate that — swearing on oath — the batch was sound. It may also just simply have been an indicator of strength.
A picture says a 1000 words (and the letter X)
Though it often meant a total methodical departure from how every other letter was approached, the distinctive shape of the X could also provide fertile ground for the struggling yet inventive alphabet creator.
In this wonderfully erudite alphabet book, it’s X as a symbol for “kiss” (curiously rendered as “ks.§§”, as though the word unaltered would be too salacious for the page).
The anonymous group approach
Perhaps the worry regarding X spread to the letters around it. Many books resorted to giving up on the whole last section of the alphabet, transforming these letters into a nameless gang.
Or X is for… X (or just nothing at all)
Some publishers just seemed to give up altogether, opting for a more meta approach — making X simply stand for… X.
In this example, the despair is palpable. They’ve simply refused to offer up any word beginning with X, instead using the space to comment on the difficulty.
And this one is perhaps the best of all. They’ve just missed it out entirely.