Don’t annex the X! | Financial Times


Consider the plight of the letter “x”. Once comfortably reclining towards the end of the alphabet, used for mysterious unknowns or the confounding variable, or adding a touch of Latinate sophistication, it now finds itself in the crosshairs of corporate interests.

After ventures with electric cars at Tesla and spaceships at SpaceX, Elon Musk has commandeered this symbol for his own ambitions, extending his influence from the tangible world of technology into the nuts and bolts of language.

His purchase of the X.com domain back in 1999, initially for a bank that would eventually morph into PayPal, was one of the earliest examples of this linguistic land-grab. He is now inserting it into various aspects of his branding and outputs: a Tesla model, the AI venture xAI, his son X Æ A-Xii, and his so-called “everything app”. If he comes to own the concept of x, what will the rest of us use?

The early decades of the 21st century were full of playfulness of language in the new territory of digital names. Combinations of words were mashed together: MySpace, Facebook. Letters were inserted — iPhone, iPad — and vowels were abandoned in Flickr and Tumblr. Twitter fitted this vibe, with its tweets conjuring a singsong call between friends and associates, the soft circles of its logo giving it a cuteness. The rumoured new name, a “xeet”, sounds more like an expectoration.

It might be true that, through the last decade, Twitter has become less songbird of democracy, as it was hailed during the Arab Spring, more raptor after the 2016 election of Trump. It may also be that brands do need to rehatch from time to time. Where’s Ronald McDonald nowadays, and what of the Marathon chocolate bar? But old names are usually retired with some dignity and nostalgia, and some notice to its customers. 

Not this time. On Monday, hours after the name change announcement, the Twitter name was systematically removed, letter by letter, from the company’s San Francisco facade. No metaphor was required for the destruction of the brand. It now seems inevitable that it will be replaced by Musk’s modern Unicode version of a Jolly Roger. 

X, though, is not a neutral state: despite being a letter, it has also carried meaning. From its Latin and Greek roots, it has indicated the outsider, the “ex” or the other, the xeno. The letter has stepped up to fill linguistic gaps, be it in X-ray, initially a term for unknown radiation, or x, the enigma we strive to solve in acrobatic algebraic problems. It narrates our genetic stories via the X chromosome and injects a dash of allure with the X factor.

At times it has been the symbol of Christ, also an outsider, of counterculture, a marking for abstinence for the Straight Edge movement, and also defiance in 1950s America: those who converted to the Nation of Islam abandoned the surnames given to them by slavers, replacing them with an X before assuming an Islamic name — Malcolm X being the most prominent.

The shape of the letter, two opposite slashes of a pen, has made it a symbol of both approval and disapproval — signifying a vote, rejection, even a kiss, or a deletion in old typewritten documents.

Musk appears to want to appropriate one of the very atoms of the English language for corporate purposes, not so unlike when Google renamed its parent company Alphabet in 2015, in reference to the foundational elements of its core service: search. Then chief executive Larry Page said so explicitly in a letter regarding the rebranding. (Facebook also went down the ancient Greek road but ended up with the conceptually abstract Meta, or “beyond”.)

However, Musk holds a trump card that Google never possessed: the domain name. Among other single-letter domains, the other bad boys of the internet — Q.com and Z.com — belong to an internet fibre company and a bullion trading company in Japan, respectively. The other 23 letters are not available in such form. 

K is synonymous with new Korean culture, the little e is hitched to the internet. More ominously, the Russians brandish Z on their tanks, and Q, once a questioning fellow, is now claimed by the shadowy group QAnon.

Owners of intellectual property will question whether something as generic as X can be trademarked. Yet as more of Musk’s brands adopt it, the infection will spread across our language. He will undoubtedly attempt to co-opt more words: reportedly, the new HQ has already christened conference rooms with names such as eXult, eXposure and s3Xy.

Georges Perec, who wrote the entire novel La Disparition (translated brilliantly into English by Gilbert Adair as “A Void”) without using the letter “e”, had spotted the power of these singular elements of language. 

The absent “e” was a reference to his parents, who disappeared during the second world war. He followed this with another novel, W, or The Memory of Childhood, in which the lone letter comes to represent a society resembling The Hunger Games

We could, in protest, take a Perec-esque stance and begin to abandon words including “x”. Or perhaps it would be better to express ourselves extensively with this exceptional letter. Our lexical war cry: “Don’t annex the x.”

Or we could allow Twitter and tweeting to become generic terms in return for his taking the x. Our tweets may have been short, but may the memory be long.

Follow Joy at @joy_lo_dico

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