How did ‘XO’ come to symbolize kisses and hugs?

Sunday Signal

Love letters are a great way for couples to express their affection and devotion to each other. The sentiments expressed in love letters are as unique as the couples who write them. However, love letters often contain one particular turn of phrase regardless of their authors.

When signing a love letter, it’s customary for writers to include at least one “XO” near their names. “XO” is widely recognized as symbolic of wishing “hugs and kisses” to a letter’s intended recipient. This tradition is such an ingrained part of romantic letter writing that few may stop to pause and wonder just how the letters “XO” came to symbolize hugs and kisses.

The origins of “XO” are not definitively known, though many historians note that signing letters with “X” dates back to the Middle Ages. Few people could read and write in the Middle Ages, but signing “X” did not require either of those abilities. Christianity played a big part in many people’s lives during the Middle Ages, and “X” was seen as a representation of the Christian cross. So when people signed “X” on legal documents, they were essentially stating the contents of the document were true in the name of Jesus Christ.

While Jesus Christ’s teachings are rooted in showing compassion for one’s fellow man, signing a letter with “X” did not symbolize love in the Middle Ages. In fact, that development did not come about until much later. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes the first use of “X” to symbolize love and/or kisses in a letter to English naturalist Gilbert White. However, some historians debate the accuracy of that attribution, saying White’s use of the letter “X” in his letter was likely meant to convey blessings on the letter’s recipient.

Researcher Stephen Goranson found many uses of the letter “X” to convey love and/or kisses in or after the 1880s, so it’s very likely that this was the first time that including the letter “X” at the end of a letter took on the meaning so many people give it now.

As for “O” symbolizing hugs, even less is known about how that came about. The late American writer Leo Rosten, whose writings included 1968’s “The Joys of Yiddish,” suggested that including “O” at the end of a letter might have a similar origin story to “X.” Rosten theorized that “O” was used by Jewish immigrants who did not want to sign a document with “X,” which they, like the people in the Middle Ages, interpreted as symbolic of the Christian cross.

Exactly when “O” was paired with “X” and came to symbolize hugs is unknown, though various historians suggest the two were not paired until the latter half of the 20th century. (MC) 

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