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If one reads a lot of children's books, it is obvious that X is a real thorn in the side for those authors looking to have each letter of the alphabet represented in their books. Most of them either cop out with X-ray, or they make up fake words.

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has only 3 pages devoted to X and with the possible of exception of xeric¹ and X-ray, none of the words would be recognized as common.

Why are there so few common words in English that begin with the letter X?

¹ xeric may not actually be that common since it is not recognized by the spellchecker in my browser

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I'm not sure this question has legs. FWIW, Wikipedia says that at 0.034%, words starting with Z are less common than words starting with X (0.037%). One might ask why T (16.6%) is so popular as a first letter, when it's far less common than E overall (9% compared to 12.7%) –  FumbleFingers Jan 31 '13 at 0:53
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@FumbleFingers, the Wikipedia statistics are based on what fraction of words in a large corpus of texts start with some letter, whereas Kenny is looking what fraction of unique words start with some letter. –  nohat Jan 31 '13 at 1:24
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What about xenophobia? Or do they not do that where you're from? –  Jonas Jan 31 '13 at 3:35
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Shel Silverstein wrote in "The ABZ Book" that "X is for xylophone, because X is always for xylophone." –  Kevin Rubin Jan 31 '13 at 13:15
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@ChristianDavén I know you're no doubt well aware of this and were joking, but for the record (considering the purpose of the site), I'll note that Xmas is actually Χ-mas where the Χ is a Greek chi, not a Latin X, and that Χ has been an abbreviation of Χριστός (Christ) since before even Old English existed, especially combined with the letter rho (Ρ) to form the Chi Rho (☧) the monogram of Christ which was a Christian symbol as far back as the days when Christians would have viewed the cross like we would a gallows or electric chair. –  Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 0:46
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4 Answers 4

up vote 60 down vote accepted

Your dictionary goes further than Johnson's, for which the entire chapter for X was thus:

X Is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.

And actually, it's not found in that many Saxon words. Saxon itself was one exception; Seaxe in Anglo-Saxon, as was the seax, the knife from which they took their name. (The Old High German equivalent was Sahsun though, the X wasn't shared with all their neighbours).

While the the Latin alphabet adapted (with the addition of Ƿ Þ & Ð and the promotion of Æ from digraph to letter in its own right) for English use had an X, and before that the Anglo Saxon Futhorc had ᛉ, the ancestor of the Futhorc, the Elder Futhark, had no such rune. [Rect: It had the rune ᛉ, but for a different sound].

So X it would seem was a bit of a novelty. It's also mainly used for a sound that cannot start a syllable in English. Notably, some English words that do start with X come from Greek words that do start with that sound (from Ξ rather than from Χ) get pronounced as do those beginning with Z. These words are also mostly relatively recent imports. (Though Χ is where X originates it has a sound that gets imported into English with the hard CH of Christ or is changed further).

There was a brief period of spelling words that begin with sh or sch with an X in some areas (xal as a spelling of shall), but it didn't catch on.

So, while it was in the English alphabet from the beginning, it wasn't in the alphabet before it, and it was used for a sound that English never uses in the start of a word.

This doesn't give that much of a why, since we can still ask why we don't have the same sounds as Greek, and why the Germanic languages didn't have them to begin with, but that goes beyond what I know on the matter.

I think it can be interesting for analogy to look at the influence of English upon Irish and Scottish Gaelic in relation to the word vote; In both cases in seeing the need to have such a word, and lacking a letter V, the Irish imported the letter and produced votáil, while the Scottish adapted their existing tagh (to choose or select). It could have gone differently (the Irish have togh related to tagh), people speaking either language may argue about whether it is better to import or adapt, but it went the way it did.

And here we're seeing from the outside what happened to English with such Greek words. It could have adopted Greek words that begin with Ξ more directly (learning how to pronounce the sound, instead of changing your xeric example among others) and earlier (so we'd have more such words), and more often, but it didn't.

(I'm sure there are other possible sources of X-words, but I don't know them).

And so, what X-starting words we have are more recent adoptions from Greek, recent coinages, and X-ray that use it as a symbol (it comes from the use of X for an unknown quality).

Edit: It's worth noting that we could easily do without X (a fact which makes it useful in languages only recently written in Latin script - you can press gang X into anything that doesn't fit the existing set of letters without much loss). Of course various alphabet and spelling reformers have said that of other letters, and that makes it no more likely to happen, but we actually did with connexion which while still sometimes spelt that way is more often found today as connection. Noah Webster argued for the latter "for the sake of regular analogy, I have inserted connection, as the derivative of the English connect, and would discard connexion." which in a way was the invention of a new word by deriving from connect which happened to have the same meaning and pronunciation as the existing connexion. (Connexion was not derived from connect though they did have their roots in derivatives - indeed we briefly had both connex as well as connect but it died out, compare the long coexistance of jail and gaol).

In a way therefore, it's as remarkable that we have as many words with X (though not at the beginning) as we do. Various words from the *laks Indo-European root for salmon, for example come in with an X where the source does not: We have lox though the original Yiddish is often transcribed laks. While the X in our gravlax isn't unheard of among the Scandanavian sources (gravad lax in Swedish, graflax in Icelandic) some others did fine without it (gravlaks in Norwegian, while the Danes use both that and also gravad laks). When it appears in Viking-originated placenames in Ireland and Scotland an X is used in the Anglicisation though it isn't in the Irish or Gaelic (Leixlip is Léim an Bhradáin in Irish, Laxdale is Lacasdal in Gaelic - happily moving away from the KS sound the Vikins used entirely).

In all it seems that while we would not go quite as far as Christopher Robin, who noted that the environs of Winnie the Pooh's house included "Big stones and rox", our instincts haven't been that far off his, at least until the 19th Century, when poor connexion began to get it in the neck.

So since so many of our neighbours, linguistically, make less use of it, it's as much of a curiosity that we do use X as often as we do.

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Yiddish isn't written in the Latin alphabet, so its word for salmon couldn't be spelled with an "X" even if it wanted to be. –  Max Jan 31 '13 at 10:26
    
@Max Ah. I thought there was an agreed transcription method for romanising. Have edited to adjust rather than remove, because I've still seen "laks" rather than "lax", but stand ready to edit further if it turns out there's a heavy use of the latter. (I'm more a gravlax eater than a lox eater, so what would I know?). –  Jon Hanna Jan 31 '13 at 10:37
    
There are standardised romanizations, and indeed most (all) of them use "ks", but that's partly because there's no single Hebrew letter for /ks/ –  Max Jan 31 '13 at 11:13
    
The Russian write for Alexander: Aleksander. –  Dohn Joe Jan 31 '13 at 11:16
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@TRiG yes, while the language may have ended up importing the letter V for some loan words, not importing X is really easy, to the point where I'd say most people who have no Irish (and my own Irish is useless so I just have the few words that are often borrowed into Hiberno-English) could figure out what it meant, even if it isn't most often seen written on top of the very thing it describes. Avoiding X is so easy, that the fact English doesn't is another curiosity of it's own, but then the Saxons did have it in their own name, and they did love their seaxes. –  Jon Hanna Feb 2 '13 at 10:43
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I don't have any proof, but a big clue to me is that the letter X in the default case represents the sound sequence /ks/, which is not a valid onset according to the rules of English phonotactics. That is, spellings of words don't start with X because pronunciations of words don't start with /ks/.

All the words that do start with X have an exceptional pronunciation—one where the letter X doesn't correspond to the pronunciation /ks/. In the case of X-ray, the pronunciation derives from the name of the letter rather than the sound the letter ordinarily makes. All the others are words borrowed from other languages, usually Greek, which aren't very common in English.

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A more interesting question might be why we have virtually zero words ending in q. Or why qu is our go-to method for making the "kw" sound. Blog it! –  Robusto Jan 31 '13 at 1:42
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Doesn't anyone play the xylophone anymore? –  Amos M. Carpenter Jan 31 '13 at 1:44
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@StoneyB - Yes, but I suspect aaamos was struck - as I was - by the fact that the OP mentions 'xeric' (definitely NOT common) but not 'xylophone', which is still not terribly common but much more likely to come up. –  MT_Head Jan 31 '13 at 1:58
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@MT_Head: xelactly! –  Amos M. Carpenter Jan 31 '13 at 2:04
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I find it bizarre that people are arguing over how names "should" be pronounced. Certainly it is reasonable to say that a name has "traditionally been pronounced as" such and such...but to say that someone is pronouncing their own name wrong strikes me as a bit narrow minded. –  Beska Jan 31 '13 at 13:50
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In the middle of an English word, like axe, the letter x denotes the consonant pairing ks.

There are no words in English which begin with the ks phonemes. The reason is simply "just because": English morphology does not manifest a leading ks and that is that.

Since English words do not have that sound at the beginning, that explains why there aren't any words which are written starting with x or ks. At least, not any words that originate in the English language.

Words that are written beginning with x are usually foreign loanwords (which perhaps do have the ks sound in their original language). Even if they originate in the English-speaking world, they have foreign roots (for instance xanthan gum, named after the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium by its discoverers at the U.S. Dep't of Agriculture).

When English adopts foreign loan words, there is usually a practice of maintaining the foreign spellings, but modifying their pronounication to match whatever is suggested by their spelling as if it were English. So for instance Pythagoras becomes pie-THA-g'-rus, which is unrelated to the original Greek sounds. Various X words from Greek and other languages take on a leading Z sound: Xylophone becomes ZAI-lo-fone, and so forth, as English speakers intuitively avoid the forbidden leading ks. There is no reason to use X to write an English word which begins with the Z sound, except to preserve its foreign spelling.

Of course the pronounciation of words like X-ray (or X-[anything]) and Mr. X just spells the letter.

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I don't agree that the reason is "just because". It (or they if there are several reasons) may or may not be unknown, but they aren't "just because". –  Jon Hanna Jan 31 '13 at 9:53
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Initial consonant clusters in English are always Sibilant + Stop. Initial Stop + Sibilant clusters like /ps/, /ts/, or /ks/ are forbidden. The reverse is normal at the end of a syllable, which is where <X> appears. –  John Lawler Jan 31 '13 at 18:22
    
@JohnLawler do you have anything on the history that led to that being the case? It's the big gap in my own answer IMO, and really, the one that gets to the crux of the matter. –  Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 0:33
    
The historic perspective may be interesting to you, but it's not the crux of the matter at all. Some people are satisfied with the explanation which connects writing with morphology and importation of foreign loanwords, in the present language as it stands. –  Kaz Feb 1 '13 at 1:08
    
It's a general phonological universal. Normally sonority increases towards the nucleus vowel in the syllable, reaches a peak and declines. That's the canonic (though far from the only) way to delimit syllables; again, this varies a lot from language to language. Languages like Japanese, for instance, allow no phonemic initial consonant clusters of any kind, while in practice producing allomorphic clusters by devoicing high vowels between voiceless consonants. –  John Lawler Feb 1 '13 at 1:15
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Perhaps its because in the middle ages most people couldn't write, so signed their names as an X. Consequently a capitalised X at the start of a word could be confused as a signature?

--Edit--

Evdence that X was used as a signature exists. A quick google reveals:

http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/%22X%22+as+a+Signature

The rest is indeed speculation, hence the use of the word "perhaps".

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Illiterate people (or those suffering a disability preventing legible writing) would have tended not to sign much, and tend to still figure out to sign at the point being pointed to, so it would no more have caused this problem than any other letter. O is a very common letter, but the comparable use of a circle by 19th & 20th C Jews in the US caused no such confusion. There was no comparable use of ᛉ as a signature when Anglo-Saxon was written in futhorc rather than Latin letters, and the lack of X dates back to before then. –  Jon Hanna Jan 31 '13 at 11:47
    
Do you have evidence for this? It seems rather speculative. –  KennyPeanuts Jan 31 '13 at 14:50
    
I have edited my post accordingly. –  Facebook Answers Jan 31 '13 at 15:01
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For that matter the literate would add Xs to signatures as well as their name (though a cross that became an X). That's not the hard to believe bit, but that a people's language would be influenced by a practice that came from a religion they didn't yet practice clashing with an alphabet they didn't yet use. –  Jon Hanna Jan 31 '13 at 16:35
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