The poor, overworked letter x

Originally published Oct 19, 2010

People have been asking a lot of the letter x lately. While most letters only have to express one sound at a time, x already bears responsibility for expressing two sounds, k and s, squished together. As if that weren’t enough, entrepreneurs are asking it to do even more jobs, some pretty strange.

Of course, x has always done a little moonlighting, expressing the sound z at the beginnings of certain words and names, such as xylophoneXerox, and Xobni, while the letter z is otherwise engaged.

Now consider the name Predixion, for prediction software. That’s not at all confusing, right? Presumably it’s pronounced just like the word prediction. If you were telling someone about it, you’d simply have to say “It’s prediction, except with an x rather than a ct”. When you look at the name you can figure out the pronunciation, but expressing the sounds k and sh squished together is something new for the letter x.

It’s the company Adapx, however, that really asks too much of poor x. In the name Adapx, the x must express either the sounds t and s squished together, or just the sound s, if you say the name like you’re pronouncing the word adapts in an especially jaunty nonstandard way. Adapx makes handwriting capture software called Capturx, which is supposed to be pronounced just like the word captures. Here x is called upon to express the sound z at the end of a word instead of the beginning, again expanding its job description. The hardware that goes with this, a special pen with sensors that record its movements while you write, is Penx, pronounced like the word pens. Besides being another strange use of x, the implied plural is odd in this context. It would be natural to allow the name to be used informally to refer to the pens, the way we call our cars Toyotas and our jeans Levis, but the plural form almost guarantees that won’t happen. You just can’t say “I got a pens” and feel good about it. You have to say something like “I got one of those Penx pens, you know what I’m talking about?”

The Name Inspector would like to urge everyone to give x a break. You’re overtaxing the poor letter, and its job performance is suffering as a result.

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