Unexpected Relatives for Xmas
The festive season is drawing to a close. As in previous years, gifts were exchanged, cards were sent, and people were scolded for using the abbreviation Xmas. Criticisms of Xmas are manifold: some simply advise against using it in formal contexts, while others object more strongly, describing it as an attempt to secularize the holiday by replacing the name Christ with an “X”. Is there any truth to this last charge? If not, how did this unusual abbreviation come into existence? And how are alpha and delta, our two other picks for this Word Story, even related to Xmas? Here’s a clue: perhaps the first letter of Xmas isn’t actually an “X” at all.
It is technically true that the noun Xmas is an abbreviation, but it is a peculiar one, involving the interplay of more than one language. The initial “X” is only superficially the same as the uppercase letter X. It is also unrelated to the (Christian) cross and is not a variant of the symbol “†” (called a “dagger” or “obelus”). The “X” in fact represents the capital form of a Greek letter, chi (lower case: χ), as found in words like χάρισμα (kharisma “grace”) and τέχνη (tekhnē “skill”). Chi also happens to be the first letter of Χριστός (i.e. Khristos, literally “the anointed one”), the Greek word for Christ, from which English, via Latin, obtained Christ. The “X” from Xmas is therefore a truncated form of the Greek word, Χριστός.
The second part of the word, -mas, can be analyzed as the latter part of the noun Christmas of Modern English, although it would be more accurate to view it as -mas of Middle English cristmas or crysmas, from Old English Cristesmæsse “Christ’s mass”.
An early attestation of Xmas, spelled X’temmas, is found in a 1551 text: “to be paid likewise […] from X’temmas next following” (collected in Edmund Lodge, Illustrations of British history, biography, and manners […], 1791). The modern, shorter form Xmas is only seen in the mid-1700s. In his letters, author Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses both forms Xstmas (“Xstmas Carol”, 1799) and Xmas (“on Xmas Day”, 1801); and in an important letter from 1864 to fellow writer Tom Taylor, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, writes the following post-scriptum: “I should be very glad if you could help me in fixing on a name for my fairy-tale, which Mr. [John] Tenniel […] is now illustrating for me, and which I hope to get published before Xmas.” (The title was eventually chosen: it was to be Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)
Despite the word’s antiquity, some English style guides consider Xmas too informal to be used in serious contexts, especially when the longer form Christmas is possible. It has even been interpreted, wrongly, as an attempt at secularizing the holiday, i.e. as “taking Christ out of Christmas” (to quote an oft-repeated phrase). The variant pronunciation [EKSmas] has attracted similar criticism.
Alpha (άλφα) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, as used in both the classical and modern forms of the language. Its upper case and lower case forms are A and α—largely the basis for their Latin script equivalents. The Greek alpha is pronounced as the open front unrounded vowel [a] in the English word cap.
As the first letter of the alphabet of a language whose cultural influence was crucial in most domains of European activity, alpha was used as a noun or adjective in a variety of scientific and technical contexts: as constants in physics and chemistry, as a symbol in various branches of mathematics and statistics, as a prefixed name denoting typicality or priority in botanical and zoological nomenclature, as well as in modern astronomy (e.g. Alpha Centauri, or α Cen, the star system closest to Earth).
The expression the alpha and omega, meaning “all aspects of something”, is first attested in Wycliffe’s Bible (circa 1384), in three occurrences of the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, for example, “I am alpha and oo, the bigynnyng and ende” (21:6). The choice of the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet would make sense here since the New Testament, which the Book of Revelation is a part of, was originally written in a form of Koine Greek. An English equivalent for the expression would be from A to Z.
As the name of a geographical and geological feature, the word delta, “a triangular area of land formed by sedimentation at the mouth of a river”, was first used by the Ancient Greeks in reference to a specific location, the Nile Delta, well known as a place for trade, settlement and, at times, plunder. The term’s coinage is often attributed to the famous Greek historian Herodotus, although this is now considered erroneous. The Nile Delta was already named in this way as far back as the eighth century BCE—long before Herodotus’ time—as careful analysis of the use of the term in Herodotus’s Histories has shown (Francis Celoria, “Delta as a Geographical Concept in Greek Literature”, Isis, Autumn 1966).
More than twenty centuries later, this was also how the term, in its geographical sense, was first used in English. A 1555 translation by Richard Eden of Peter Martyr d’Anghiera mentions “the ryuer of Nilus, where as is the fyrst Delta” (The decades of the newe worlde or west India […]). The word delta used as a common noun for all similarly formed geological features is only attested in English at the end of the 1700s, in the writings of Edward Gibbon, specifically concerning “the delta of Mesola, at the mouth of the Po” (running across northern Italy).
From an etymological viewpoint, the geographical “delta” is named after the triangular shape of the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet: “Δ”. The name of the letter in Greek is delta (δέλτα), from the Phoenician dāleth, probably meaning “door”—from the shape of a primitive version of the character. The Latin letter D/d and the Cyrillic Д/д both originate as the Greek delta (Δ/δ).