Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

December 2008

X-cited about Xmas?
There are two things I can count on every Christmas: one, it will start earlier every year (soon we'll see decorations up in late January); and two, someone will tell me that "'Xmas' is not a word in the English language."

Well, there's not much I can do about the first problem, but perhaps I can come to the aid of Xmas. This common abbreviation is no lazy, modern coinage, but actually more venerable than many Xmas carols we will happily sing while wearing tissue cracker-crowns over a mug of mulled wine this year.

The common misconception – one that I myself was told as a child, along with that nonsense about Port Out Starboard Home – is that the X in Xmas represents the 'criss' part of criss-cross, thus imitating the first syllable of Christmas (the t, of course, being silent). This, it turns out, is simply not true.

In the first place, Xmas is a fairly old word. Citations for it go back to the mid-1500s. By contrast, the Xmas carol 'Jingle Bells' was copyrighted in 1857, while 'Away in a Manger' was first published in 1885.

The –mas element, in both Xmas and the full form Christmas, comes from the noun Mass, which is a religious service in some Christian sects, especially Roman Catholicism. It comes from the Latin noun missa, itself derived from the verb mittere, 'to send', possibly referring to the dismissal at the end of the Mass: Ite, missa est ('Go, it [the service] is dismissed'). Christ, of course, refers to the founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, called Jesus Christ and regarded as the son of God by his followers. It, too, comes immediately from Latin (Christus), though its ultimate origin is Ancient Greek. So Christmas is the day on which a religious service is offered in honour of Christ.

The 'criss' in criss-cross is also derived from the name Christ and refers to the crucifixion (unlike the word Christmas, it has dropped its t, disguising its origin). But the criss-cross was originally a t-shaped cross, resembling that enduring symbol of Christianity, and not and x-shaped cross (like the St Andrews Cross). Given that criss-cross appears more than a century earlier than Xmas, we might expect the abbreviation to be 'T-mas', if the abbreviation were truly derived from the symbol.

Furthermore, the letter 'x' is already used in other common abbreviations to mean 'cross' (e.g. the word Xing on road signs in certain countries or King's X for 'King's Cross'). And an 'x' can be referred to as a cross, a criss-cross, but never just a criss.

But the real clincher is that the 'X' in Xmas is not actually the English letter 'x'. It is the Greek letter 'chi' (Χ), which looks nearly identical to an English x, and is the first letter of the Greek word 'Christos', which is the Ancient Greek origin of the word Christ. The letter Chi has been used as an abbreviation of 'Christ' for about a millennium. So the form Xmas as a shortening of Christmas is venerable, logical, and religiously orthodox.

Now, playing that Band Aid song in October…that's a mortal sin.

Robert Groves - Editor