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XOXO Marks the Spot

Last December The Atlantic magazine reported on "a tic that's come to plague professional correspondence, especially among women": the use of xo (or xoxo or xoxoxoxo) in email signoffs. The abbreviation itself isn't new — for more than a century, X and O have represented a kiss and a hug, respectively. What's newly fashionable is workplace xo-ing to communicate "a small high-five of professional sisterhood," as the magazine authors put it.

I don't sign my own emails that way, and haven't yet seen xoxo in an email from a client or colleague. But I do see a lot of X's and O's all around me just the same: in the breezy, cozy, kissy-huggy names of companies and products. Valentine's Day seems the perfect occasion to cuddle up with them.

There's xoJane, for example, the women's "lifestyle website" launched in May 2011 by Jane Pratt, the founding editor of two defunct magazines for young women, Sassy and Jane. The site's logo combines a photo of Pratt with her kisses-and-hugs signature.

An xoJane reader might dress herself in clothes from XOXO, a label that calls itself "the embodiment of Smart Sexy." The XOXO brand includes shoes, handbags, sunglasses, and belts — but not wedding gowns, which are the specialty of a different company, XOXO Bridal, "the Hugs and Kisses Bridal Boutique."

Hershey's, the American chocolate company, is famous for its Kisses and Hugs candies. Put them together and you have the XOXO Bar, introduced for Valentine's Day 2012.

You might nibble on an XOXO Bar while sipping XOXO wine, a Canadian brand whose bottlings represent "the embrace of two perfect grapes" (from "great Canadian vineyards") and whose marketing appears to be targeted at women. Then settle in to binge-watch the recently concluded TV series "Gossip Girl," each of whose episodes signed off with "XOXO Gossip Girl."

At least one XOXO isn't exclusively or primarily for women: the XOXO Festival. This Portland, Oregon, gathering — the second one will be held in September — calls itself an arts and technology festival that celebrates "disruptive creativity." The XOXO name is a symbolic smooch: "This thing, whatever it is, is about love," co-founder Andy Baio said last year in his keynote speech. "It's about using technology to make something you love."

How did X and O come to represent affection? Circuitously, it seems. The OED's earliest citation for X meaning "kiss" is from 1763, in the signature on a letter from Gilbert White, a minister: "I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster and Ave Maria, Gil. White." But Stephen Goranson, a researcher at Duke University, is skeptical about that citation. He noted recently on the American Dialect Society's listserv that White's X's may have in fact been crosses that represented not "kisses" but "blessings." The "kiss" interpretation evolved from the "blessing" one; "unimpeachably kiss-identified" uses of X's, wrote Goranson, didn't appear until the late 19th century. ("Sealed with a kiss," Goranson added, "is much older, but those sealings are generally direct kissing not epistolary.")

As for O to mean "hug," that history is even blurrier. The OED is silent: It has entries in which O represents "any round thing," but doesn't mention encircling arms. An old website, HugsAndKisses.com, maintains that "O" is "a North American custom" — but gives no source for that assertion.

One interesting theory about the use of O in signatures comes from Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, originally published in 1968. Rosten wrote that when illiterate Jewish immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island in the late 19th century, they refused to sign forms with the customary "X" because it resembled a Christian cross. Instead, they made a circle or O. (According to Rosten, the Yiddish word for circle, kikel — pronounced KY-kel — gave rise to kike, a derogatory term for Jew. Other sources, including the OED, give a different etymology for kike.)

By the early 20th century, X and O were appearing together as a symbol of affection. Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer found "XO" in correspondence presented in a 1905 legal case: "1000 million XO, yours forever."

Not everyone agrees that X is the kiss and O is the hug, however: a humorous "What You Ought to Know" video features a man who's pretty sure "a kiss is always O-shaped."

To further confuse matters, the XO combination sometimes means something other than kisses and hugs. XO Cognac, for example, is "extra old" — a desirable and expensive characteristic. Cognac is a status symbol in China, which is why XO sauce, a pricey seafood-based condiment invented in Hong Kong in the 1980s, borrows its generic name from the Cognac designation. (There is no Cognac or any other alcoholic beverage in XO sauce.)

The makers of the XO laptop, an inexpensive computer from the nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child, don't explain the name: it may come from the symbols used in tic-tac-toe and thus connote simplicity and fun. The logo transforms the two letters into a stick-figure human.

As for XOJet, the private aviation company, none of the four people I talked to — two at the company, two at its public-relations firm — could tell me what the "XO" stands for. When I asked whether it came from the military abbreviation for "executive officer," the last PR rep I interviewed said it might. It definitely doesn't mean "kisses and hugs," she added.

And, curiously, neither does the inverted letter combination OXO. In the United States, OXO — pronounced "ox-oh" — is a brand of ergonomically designed household tools. According to the official story, OXO's founder chose the name because "whether it's horizontal, vertical, upside down, or backwards, it always reads ‘OXO'." In the UK, OXO — also pronounced "ox-oh" — is a century-old brand of meat extracts; the OXO Tower, owned by the food company, is a landmark on the River Thames. The name may be a variation of "ox" — one of the original flavors, perhaps? — but if it is, the manufacturer's lips are sealed.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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