X Marks the Spot, J.M. Barrie, The Urban Dictionary, and Xystus

According to the online Urban Dictionary, “X marks the spot” was a symbol pirates used to designate the location of treasure. Then the British Army appropriated the phrase and the X for executions. They marked a piece of paper with a black X and positioned it on the heart of someone sentenced to death. The officer in charge would announce “X marks the spot” and the firing squad would shoot the x.

Bear in mind that, like Wiktionary which uses volunteers, the Urban Dictionary relies on its users to add content. One can vote on a word or phrase by choosing, “Add it,” “Keep out,” or “Can’t decide.”

This edgy database called the Urban Dictionary kinda does and kinda doesn’t take itself seriously as in this March 2017 definition:

“An outlet for word addicts, who can be grouped into six main characters: the rarely creative, the hypocritically cynical, the politically irreverent, the sexually depraved, the religiously racist, and the sarcastically narcissistic. On a lighter note, the Urban Dictionary motivates us not to take life seriously—let’s laugh at our idiocies and idiosyncrasies, not to say, our frailties and fatalities.”

Back to X Marks the Spot. The Oxford English Dictionary, which I never tire of accessing for quotations indicating usage over time, quotes J. M. Barrie’s 1918 line from Echoes of War: “In the rough sketch drawn for to-morrow’s press, ‘Street in which the criminal resided’…you will find Mrs. Dowey’s home therein marked with an X.”

We know Sir James Matthew Barrie not for his short story collections (Echoes of War) or for his theatrical productions (What Every Woman Knows) or for his sentimental novels (The Little Minister), but for Peter Pan, first performed as a play in London in 1904.

The letter “X” (24th in the alphabet) marks the spot, so to speak, where I shorten my blogs because I have three to write in one day to complete the A-Z Blog Challenge. My wife suggested that I write a single blog spotlighting a word that contained X, Y, and Z. Great idea, I thought, certain that I’d run into one in our Scrabble dictionary.

There were no words, other than long scientific ones, that contained all three letters. (Prove me wrong, if you know of one!) The closest I could come was the noun xystus which can also be spelled zystus.

The OED defines Xystus like this: “Among the ancient Greeks, a long covered portico or court used for athletic exercises; among the ancient Romans, an open colonnade, or walk planted with trees, used for recreation and conversation.”

Wrestlers also used Xisti. (Xisti is one of the plurals of zystus): “Zystus was a Place where the Wrestlers exercis’d.”—Phillips New World of Words, 1706.

In 1871, F. W. Farrar wrote in Witness of History, “Philosophers…aired their elegant doubts in the shady xystus.”

I leave this shady xystus, this shadowy blog, for the letter Y.

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