Tuesday, December 29, 2009

X, O, and the K-word

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The challenge of letter X comes around again today at ABC Wednesday meme.

Tic-tac-toe is not the only fun way to use X and O.

Remember the era when we still wrote letters on stationery--and signed them with XOXO under our signature?
OK, it's easy to imagine hugging arms looking like the O. That is a recent North American addition to XOXO.
But how did X come to stand for "kiss"?
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Apparently this custom started in the early Christian era. To sign with "X" gave a document the validity of a sworn oath. The X was the first Greek letter of the Greek name Xristos (Jesus) and the X cross mark symbolized the cross.
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Many people were illiterate until even as recently as 150 years ago. So signing X took the place of a full signature. To show the importance of the mark, people would kiss it, just like they reverently put their lips to a Bible or crucifix.
This practice led to the idea of X representing a kiss.
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To Jews, however, X was an evil sign (as Leo Rosten recounts in The Joys of Yiddish) which represented the horrors of crucifixion [Jesus was not the only Jew crucified by the Romans, remember] as well as being the symbol of their Christian oppressors.
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So when waves of Jews, many of them illiterate or writing only non-Latin alphabets, entered Ellis Island in New York, they refused to sign the immigration forms with the customary X.
Instead they drew a circle.
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The Yiddish word for "circle" is kikel (pronounced ky-kel).
The American immigration inspectors started calling anyone who signed with an O a "kikel." Soon this was shortened to "kike."
Jewish-American merchants continued to sign with O instead of X for several decades, spreading the nickname kike wherever they went as a natural result.
At that time it was not a bad word. Only later did it develop into a racial slur.
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Apropos, you might also enjoy (?) my previous X-letter post; it's about xenophobia. :-)
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41 comments:

Vogon Poet said...

Interesting story, I knew only the Christan part...

Dina said...

Vogon Poet shalom. It was new to me, too.

spacedlaw said...

That is very interesting, Dina.

RuneE said...

Once more something new :-)

PS I didn't even know the "bad" word, and to me XO has a certain French "tang", but I'm willing to share ;-)

Eki said...

That's an interesting piece of information. I didn't know that. Thanks for the enlightenment, Dina. A nice picture too.

JM said...

I haven't played this since 'paper and pencil times'! :-)

JM said...

I allways was intrigued by the XOXO thing...

Dina said...

Hi Spacedlaw! You could probably find a poem in it. :)

RuneE, hmm, maybe by next X Day in half a year I can post on XO as in Extra old. Cognac, right? But I'd have to start "studying" on the topic way beforehand. Share, did you say? LOL

Eki, thanks. The boy is my grandson a few years ago.

JM, really, you don't play tic-tac-toe every day?? ;)
Notice that even here in the children's science museum the buttons they press light up the X or O on a big electronic board (well, it's not showing in the picture though).

Dina said...

JM, I imagine you received quite a few letters ending with XOXO.

Pietro said...

Interesting, Dina. XOXO reminds me of those puzzles put into poetry (sciarade, anagrammi, palindromi, cambi d'iniziale, etc), with the sequences of the guessing words letters: nothing to do with the meaning of XOXO, of course!

Dina said...

Pietro, these sound interesting and fun. Show us sometime on your blog!

Reader Wil said...

That is so interesting, Dina. I didn't know that. I can understand that the sign of the cross+ means evil for Jewish people. Jesus was Jewish and no Christian. He believed in the Jewish religion and practised this as a good Jew should do. Any Jew who preached against the Romans, was crucified at the time.But you know about this than I. It was a cruel execution, as many executions have been until now.
Have a great week, Dina! I removed the snow effect because you are right : it doesn't go with the beer in Australia.

Gerald (Ackworth born) said...

I too knew the X derivation but the O is new information - ah the many things blogging teaches us.

Leslie: said...

What an eXceptional history lesson. I never knew all that before. Love that TicTacToe Board! :D

Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, that's why Xmas shouldn't be problematic (but it is)

Dina said...

Wil-- woa woa! I was saying that Rosten said the cross WAS a bad reminder. But we are talking about the Jewish immigrants a hundred years ago, escaping the pogroms and ghettos and restrictions of Europe for the promise of America, the "Goldene Medina."
We have come a long way since then.

Spiderdama said...

Very interesting:-)
Shalom!

Dina said...

And Wil--
Oh no, where did the falling snow go?! It was a nice effect, like something you might see after have a few XXXX beers in Australia. LOL

Thanks for the video song, Wil. You always find appropriate music for your posts.

Reader Wil said...

Dear Dina! Yesterday I saw a program called "The Reunion"It was the reunion of the schoolclass of the Jewish Latin School in Amsterdam. The students of 1940 were all classmates of Anne Franck, who would have been 80 this year. Each of them had known her and some of them had seen her a few weeks before her death in Bergenbelsen. All stories told by these few survivors of the holocaust were so moving that I couldn't listen to it with dry eyes. That is what so called Christians had done! I can well understand the feeling of hatred of the cross that has been used to kill people of other religions. But we should honour the Jewish religion first and foremost because Jesus was a Jew, who taught us his believe and lived a life of love and respect for his fellow creatures. I read the book "My Name is Asher Lev"by Chaim Potok. I can well understand the hatred of Asher's parents for the cross, in which name thousands of Jewish people were killed if they didn't convert to Christianity. I am ashamed to be a christian, but I am not ashamed to be a follower of that gentle, respectful, loving person that Jesus was. He is not the only one to set an example. There was Buddha and later much later Gandhi. Sorry that I am so emotional, but Anne Franck's schoolmates made me think about the sheer madness and evil of many people in this world.Let's start the new year with love, peace and understanding.

Dina said...

Dear Wil, PLEASE never say you are ashamed! Only the guilty individuals should feel guilty about what they did, NOT the good people like you.

Thank you for telling us about the TV program. It must have been good, and sad.
I too watched a program a few days ago and I too was in tears. It showed a recent reunion of Israeli paratroopers who defended Jerusalem in the 1967 Six Day War.
Mostly it was movies taken by the Jordanian army. It was awful to see the heavy artillery hitting the buildings of Jerusalem, the places I now know and love.
I moved to Israel in 1968 and had never seen the city when it was divided, pre-June 1967.

Reader Wil said...

Thank you so much for your answer. My greatest wish is that all believers unite and love and respect each other.I remember exactly when in 1967 Israel was attacked, because my eldest child was born then. She was born on 28th May. We were all upset about the cowardly attack on Israel during the celebrations of one of your holy days. Terrible..

Stan Ski said...

I never knew that - thanks for the info.

Manang Kim said...

Another very clever idea for letter X..this is why I am so excited to this meme everybody has a superb idea. Thanks for sharing. Happy New Year!

ABC Wednesday:Xerophyte

Q said...

Thank you for the history lesson. I never knew the meaning behind the use of the X or the O.
Most often symbols become part of our lives because of a need. I see the need now for using an O for a signature. So very interesting.
May you and yours have a blessed New Year.
Sherry

Jew Wishes said...

That was absolutely fascinating, Dina!

Great photo, too!!

Cloudia said...

Few people know about this!


Well done, Dina


ShAloha, Friend!


Comfort Spiral

Rose said...

This was fascinating, Dina! I knew that the X came from the Greek word for Christ, but all the rest of this was new to me. I do remember your post on xenophobia last year--another excellent post!

Petrea said...

This is one of your most fascinating posts ever! And that's saying a lot!

magiceye said...

that was so interesting. thank you

Mara said...

Wow, I never knew that about the x and o. And for a country which uses a lot of Yiddish-based words in their normal Dutch language, I had never heard of 'kikel'.

I don't know whether you celebrate the 'Western' New Year as well as the Jewish New Year, but happy 2010 to you anyway, all the way from the Netherlands!

ruma2008 said...

This year, I'm glad for the opportunity to meet with you.

Thank you for showing your wonderful works.

I look forward to a reencounter with you next year.

Wish you a Happy New Year 2010.

From the Far East.
Best regards.
ruma

Kate said...

Fascinating information and I appreciate the amount of research you did to achieve this. Interesting that you used "xenophobia" the last time around. I consulted the dictionary for today and came up with the same word. Come visit!!

Gattina said...

Very interesting ! and a very original photo for X !

Louis la Vache said...

Very interesting post, Dina. «Louis» always enjoys reading word (or in this case, also symbolic) histories.

jay said...

How interesting! I didn't know any of that before, except of course, that 'X' stood for 'kiss' and that many Americans sign XOXO meaning 'kisses' or 'hugs and kisses'.

Thanks for that - fascinating! And now I know where the nickname 'Kike' comes from, too. I think many of the racial nicknames didn't start out as insults but only grew to be when used that way. :(

Sara said...

I always learn something new and interesting when I stop by!

Tumblewords: said...

Interesting, as always. You show me things I didn't know.

Grace and Bradley said...

Hi Dina, my post is on XOXO too, but quite different nature from yours. You have added new information of XO, may be you should add them to the Wiki. Happy New Year.

jeannette stgermain said...

Thanks for sharing that interesting piece of history, Dina!

Hilda said...

Another fascinating post and very educational for me. I always thought O was the kiss and X the hug (crossed arms). I think I've only heard the K word in movies and never knew what it meant. Now that I know, you'll never hear it come out of my mouth (or fingers). Thank you again, Dina.

Wishing you and your loved ones a peaceful and love-filled 2010.

Kay said...

Oh my goodness! This is a most fascinating and informative post. I never knew. I do know that is the cutest little child anywhere!