‘X Marks the Verb’

A few weeks ago when Twitter was renamed to X, and we learned that Elon Musk somehow thinks people are going to use “x” as both a verb and noun, I recalled having once stumbled upon this 1983 “On Language” column from the late great William Safire:

“The Federal bureaucracy has invented a new verb,” says Charles DeLaFuente of Kew Gardens, N.Y., who had just sent in his 1040 income-tax return to the Internal Revenue Service. He attached an addressed envelope that he had received from the I.R.S.; in the upper left-hand corner, where the return address of the taxpayer belongs, is the heavy black outline of a box. Next to the box are the words “X box if refund.”

“Never mind the unanswered question, ‘If refund what?’,” the irate taxpayer observed. “We all know they mean to x the box if you have a refund coming. Maybe the ink they saved on those instructions will pay for the next round of tax cuts.”

Mr. DeLaFuente — his name means “of the fountain” — is blowing his geyser for the wrong reason. The verb to x is not new. In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe wrote in one of his tales: “‘I shell have to x this ere paragrab,’ said he to himself, as he read it over.” In 1935, Jonas Bayer carried that crossing-out metaphor into the mechanical age in Startling Detective magazine: “An imported hatchet man with a .45-caliber typewriter can x out the dangerous canary.” Merriam-Webster’s first citation in the one-letter verb’s literal sense is from Henry Cassidy’s 1943 book “Moscow Dateline”: “I x’d out the word ‘west’ in the third question, changing it to ‘east.’”

The whole column is a goldmine, including a section on the Philly accent (Eagles = “Iggles”) and another referencing perhaps the coolest-named American who ever lived, Pussyfoot Johnson. (NYT subscribers can read the scans of the original Sunday magazine issue.)

Friday, 11 August 2023