XO or XOXO means “kisses and hugs”
Would you like to know why?
I’m sure you’ve seen by now that in English, people sign letters, cards, emails or text messages with an X, XO or XOXO, meaning “hugs and kisses” and is generally used as a sign of love, affection or at least friendship. Ever wondered how that came about?
We’ve already explained in a another post why people write Xmas instead of Christmas and how the letter X was used since the Middle Ages as an abbreviation to refer to Jesus Christ. To cut a long story short, it comes from Greek, where X stands for Chi, the first letter in the name Χριστός (Christos) - “Christ” in English, and people have used it extensively outside of religious contexts as well. For example by writing “Xian” when their name was Christian.
This part makes sense, right? But what could possibly be the connection between the X that stands for Christ and the X that stands for a kiss?
This link is not an obvious one for sure, and actually, there’s a lot of disagreement about it. Some people say that XO means kisses and hugs because visually the X resembles two mouths kissing and the O two arms embracing and creating a circle and that there’s no more to it.
However this theory seems unlikely because signing with an X is something that people started doing hundreds of years ago. Actually, it comes from a time before the Middle Ages, when most people couldn’t read or write so it was common that in contracts or any other legal documents to sign with an X where their name was supposed to go.
Even nowadays, in some countries, when somebody is physically unable to sign a document with their full name they can just put an X on the document provided there are other witnesses present that can testify.
Why an X and not any other letter of the alphabet? Well, now is when we should remember that X had a special meaning because it was used to refer to Jesus Christ. This practice was so widespread that, in time, scribes would also put an X on a page when they approved the text written there. (Interestingly, we do the opposite today, we put an X when we don’t agree with something and a tick when we do)
In any case, even for those that didn’t know that X stood for Christ because of the Greek alphabet, it was still a letter that closely resembled a Christian cross and, therefore, was considered special and somewhat holy. People would sign with an X because it said “I don’t know how to read or write but I am a Christian”. That meant that they should be trusted because signing with an X was something a Christian wouldn’t do unless they really meant what was written in a document or a contract; it was something they signed “In Christ’s name”.
Some specialists in semiotics proposed the theory that people would probably kiss the X after they signed it, just like in some circumstances, Christians still follow the tradition of kissing a cross or the Bible. We don’t know for a fact that’s how X became synonymous with a kiss but what we do know is that documents and letters dating back to the 18th century prove that people would add Xs when they meant to say kisses or at least blessings (an alternative interpretation). Whichever it was, by the 19th century there are many examples showing clearly that writing an X means a kiss and ever since then, the habit of adding them to our letters, cards or emails continues to this day. The reason why we’ve added an “O” is also controversial but some say it’s because we have long associated these two letters, like in the game tic-tac-toe, another thing we’ve inherited from the Middle Ages.
While some people keep their Xs or their XOs for just friends and family, others feel that not signing with a X before their name makes their texts seem too formal, cold or even a bit rude. These people say that an X written at the end of an email has even ceased to mean a kiss really, it’s so common that it could be interpreted more so as wishing somebody all the best, or writing “yours sincerely”.
What is clear is that writing these symbols isn’t anything new and, as with most traditions, they’re going to continue to be passed from generation to generation. Only a few get lost along the way, but since we’re on the topic, we could include here the habit of writing SWAK (meaning Sealed with a Kiss) or SWALK (Sealed with a Loving Kiss) on envelopes before sending out our letters. This was also something very wide spread, especially after the First World War when both soldiers and sailors popularized the use of this acronym with the letters they sent back home. Some people still do it today although most of us have given up on doing it and even forgotten what it means, but that’s probably because we don’t need to seal any envelops anymore when we send our thoughts and wishes to loved ones. Today, we can just send them an email.