John Larrysson's Column: X

The letter X should not be taught with examples of words beginning with X. Properly there are no common English words beginning with the X sound. Before you say what about X-ray... let me explain. 

The letter X is used in maths to represent an unknown value. This function has passed into English words, in x-ray, x-axis, Malcolm X and xml. It is easier to think of this word-structure as X ray, not xray. These words actually are pronounced with a short e before the x-sound.1 There are also few common words that use X as an unknown, so it is not very useful as a teaching example.

[audio 1]

One of the other common examples mis-taught to children is xylophone. There are a bunch of words from Greek that begin with the letter X. They use the prefixes xeno- or xylo-, meaning foreign and wood respectively.  From xeno- we get words like xeno, xenophobia and xerograph. From xylo- we get xylophone, xylose and xylograph.2 One important thing all of these words have in common is that the X does not represent the x-sound /ks/, instead it represents the z-sound /z/. So it would be confusing to use these fairly uncommon words as examples of the letter X.

[audio 2]

Most common words with the letter X end with it, such as box, fix and sex. A few words in Old English had an X, but all of them ended with X and a vowel. From such words we get the Modern English: flax, fox, ox, six, and wax

After the Norman invasion, Middle English included some words from Latin and French. Latin brought English the ex- prefix and several words with an X in the middle of the word. Words from French tended to stick to the Germanic pattern of keeping X firmly at the end of a word.3 These included: fix, flex, mix, sex and tax. They may have come from Latin words with X in the middle, but were changed in French.

[audio 3]

There are some other uses for the letter X. Some words are shortened using an X, examples include pock (as in pockmarked) to pox (as in smallpox), facsimile to fax, procuracy to proxy, lacks to lox. X means 10 in the Roman number system. In Xmas the X is a short form for Christ using the Greek letter chi (X). Sometimes the letter X is used to represent something X-shaped, as in the x chromosome

As you will have noticed, the letter X makes a ks-sound and not a separate sound. So there is no real need for the letter, but we are stuck with it anyway.

[audio 4]

Few common English words use the letter X and they definitely do not begin with it. Do not use x-ray and xylophone as examples of the use of the letter X. Instead use common X words, such as box, six and mix, that end with the letter X. Today I will give the last word to the most famous English dictionary writer, the entry for X in Samuel Johnson's 1756 dictionary is: "X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon4 words, begins no word in the English language."

[audio 5]


1. The name of the letter is pronounced eks, short e, K-sound, s-sound. It is not pronounced eksee, short e, K-sound, s-sound, long e. If one spells the word axe, A / eksee / E  that gives us axee not axe.

2. xeno (a gas), xenophobia (an irrational fear of foreigners), xerograph (in medicine, a cross species tissue graft), xylophone (music from wooden keys), xylose (wood sugar), xylograph (wood carvings, with other parts of speech using –er and –ic endings).

3. Old English and the pre-Latin ancestor of French were both Germanic tribal languages.

4. The word Saxon is not a Saxon/Old English word, but comes from the Latin Saxonem. The Saxons, along with the Angles, were the original ancestors of the English people. 

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The Letter C is Useless

Silent D Is Not Always Silent


The Magic-e

PH in Suffixes and Prefixes

The F sound: FF & GH

The F Sound

Hard And Soft G Spelling Patterns

Common G Spelling Patterns

How We Got Hard And Soft Gs

No English words end with the letter i?


The Oi/Oy Sound

Long U or Long OO

When is Initial U Short and when is it Long?

The Long U Digraphs

Magic E and the Long U Sound

Pronouncing The Letter Y At The Front Of A Word

Pronouncing The Letter Y In The Middle Of A Word

Pronouncing The letter Y At The End Of A Word

The letter Y & The Double Vowel Rule

The Last Letter is a Foreigner

The Spellings of Z

The name of Z

Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (2): Fake Latin

Silent letters and why English spelling is such a mess (1): Old English

I Both Love and Hate Spell-Checkers

The Rule: I before E, except after C

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

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