In February, the Finnish mobile-phone manufacturer Nokia announced a new hybrid device called Nokia X. No, the name is not a generic placeholder until something catchier — like Galaxy, Lumia, or Nexus — comes along. It's the official name of the phone, which will have slightly fancier siblings called Nokia X+ and Nokia XL. Mysterious and austere, simple yet highly symbolic, the name is representative of a dominant branding trend of our era. In nearly every category of commerce, X marks the spot.
Need proof? For starters, Nokia X isn't the only X phone: Motorola got there first with its Moto X. The nonprofit XPRIZE Foundation, founded in 1995, creates large-scale competitions that spur innovation. SpaceX designs, manufactures, and launches advanced spacecraft "with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets." TEDx is the umbrella name for independently organized "TED-like events" — TED, which stands for technology, entertainment, and design, has sponsored global conferences since 1984 — that take place around the world. In computing, XML stands for Extensible Markup Language.
In media, there's XM radio, whose original tagline was "Beyond AM. Beyond FM. XM." FX is Hollywood shorthand for "special effects," and it's also the name of Fox's cable channel: the initials originally stood for Fox Extended. A 2013 FX spinoff aimed at men age 18 to 34 is called FXX — a curious choice for that particular audience, given that the XX chromosome determines femaleness. Slate.com's XX Factor blog ("What Women Really Think") is written by and for women.
Automakers love X: you can drive a Nissan Xterra (shorthand for "cross country"), a Jaguar X-type, or an Infiniti FX, GX, JX, or QX. Gamers love X, indoors (on Microsoft's Xbox or with Marvel Comics' X-Men) and outdoors (in the X Games, which started life in 1995 as "Extreme Games" and within two years was initialized). Pharmaceutical companies really love X: you can get an Rx — short for Latin recipe, it means "prescription" — for Xalkori, Xanax, Xeljanz, Xgeva, Xtandi, or Xofigo.
Often, these products are marketed to members of the post–Baby Boom Generation X, a term whose definition has changed since 1953, when it was coined by the photographer Robert Capa to describe young people born during World War II. In 1965 Generation X became the title of a book about British youth culture; a decade later the punk rock band Generation X was named after the book; and Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X, published in 1991, was named after the band. But it was a 1994 speech by an ad-agency executive to the American Magazine Conference that turned Generation X into "an audience and a set of consumers," according to a 2002 book, Mobilising the Audience.
What makes X a branding elixir? Rarity is part of the story: fewer English words begin with X than with any other letter, which means an X brand will often have the cachet of distinctiveness.
X is also flexible. It can be pronounced /ex/ (Xfinity) or /z/ (Xyience Xenergy drink) or even /sh/ or /ch/, as in Chinese or Mexican names. Its meaning is adaptable, too. "X is pornography, the drug ecstasy, a former spouse, the signature of illiteracy, X out, cross out, the cross, an equation's unknown solution, off the charts, extra, extreme, and (in the exception exposing rule) kisses," wrote advertising critic Leslie Savan in her 2005 book about pop language, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers. In 1637, the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes was the first to use x, y, and z to represent unknown quantities corresponding to the known quantities a, b, and c. By the 19th century, X had come to mean "unknown" in extra-mathematical contexts as well. In 1950, it acquired risqué overtones when a British regulatory agency recommended an X rating for adult films; the classification was adopted in the U.S. in 1968.
But the turning point in X branding may have been the 1961 name change of the Haloid Photographic Company to Xerox, from the Greek root xero, meaning dry. (The company's photocopiers used dry toner.) "[W]hat an attractive name Xerox was, with an x on either flank," wrote linguist Will Leben in a 2011 Lexicon Branding blog post. "The changeover not only succeeded, it also gave x a new, futuristic connotation."
And it helped push X names from the negative to the positive side of the ledger. For decades, "Brand X" had been the condescending or even pejorative way in which advertisers referred to their competitors' products. Word sleuth Barry Popik, author of the Big Apple blog, has traced "Brand X" to 1929 ads that showed Old Gold cigarettes outperforming Brand "X," Brand "Y," and Brand "Z." By the 1950s the quotation marks — along with Brands Y and Z — had disappeared, and Brand X was being disparaged in ads for orange juice, laundry detergent, office supplies, and more. "Can you think of a product that would be easier to build than Brand X?" sniffed a typical ad. "After all, Brand X never has many features . . . it's never very advanced . . . and it can be sold profitably at a very low price. You can use the cheapest materials. Forget about quality control."
Along the way, though, Brand X's fortunes shifted, and it acquired the patina of ironic cool. "Brand X" was the name of British actor Russell Brand's (canceled) television talk show — on the FX channel, of course. I've even found quite a few marketing and branding agencies that call themselves Brand X. It doesn't hurt that X looks cool: linear, angular, symmetrical. X's appearance may have influenced the Nokia X name: the new phone's operating system runs on a "forked" — copied and independently developed — version of Android. The letter X suggests a visual representation of that branching.
If you think you've already seen too many X names, brace yourself. Linguist Will Leben points to the growing influence of Chinese names in the global economy, "and x appears in the Roman transcriptions of many" of them. Consider Xiaomi, the Chinese mobile-phone company now expanding into other Asian countries; the name is pronounced, roughly, shi-ow-mee, and means "little millet." X-names also derive from Vietnamese (there's a Mì Xào restaurant in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina — xào means "stir-fried") and indigenous Mexican languages (see Xocolatl de David in Portland, Oregon, whose name comes from the Aztec word for chocolate).
In other words, we're all living along the X-axis. Extol it or execrate it, this is a naming trend that simply won't be Xed out.