Valentine’s Day is more than a month past, but we’re still receiving an endless stream of kisses: passed along in emails and texts like months-old mints nestled at the bottom of our bags, doled out inconsequentially to our tax guys and the work colleagues we’ve never actually met.
Symbolized by two lowercase X’s or a lone capital at the close of a message, kisses have become the trivial signoff du jour for a subset of Americans, a spicier take on “All the best.” Hugs, their more sober partner, written simply as “o,” have been kicked aside after failing to make it big in the merciless world of internet parlance.
Ending digital notes with these shorthand kisses is especially popular today among people who work in industries like fashion or public relations, which lean female and are, perhaps, less likely to be navigating the muddy waters of #MeToo. The x’s manufacture closeness and soften bad news. To leave them out is to risk coming across wooden and cold, if not a psychopath.
Dana Schwartz, the co-founder of the Hours Agency, a fashion public relations firm in New York, has long been a proponent of signing work-related emails with “xx,” finding that it makes the messages more friendly and conversational. In the last few years, she’s noticed more and more people in her orbit using “xx,” too.
“Email itself has changed, with shorter and less-structured notes back and forth becoming more common,” Schwartz said. “This has allowed quick expressions like ‘xx’ to gain popularity and take on new meaning,” more gratitude than romance.
But how did we land here? Sending virtual kisses to people with whom we’d never really want to lock lips?
Apparently, we have the Brits to thank (or blame, depending on your viewpoint).
The author Ben Yagoda, who tracks Britishisms entering the American lexicon on his blog Not One-Off Britishisms, first noticed the trend trickling over to the States in 2011. According to his then-college-age daughter Maria, all of her friends who had studied abroad in England were suddenly using “xx” in their digital messages in an effort to sound more British and, thus, cooler.
By 2014, the trend had grown significant enough in Britain to warrant a study on its popularity. Lynne Cahill, the head of English language and linguistics at the University of Sussex surveyed roughly 600 people (90 percent of whom lived in the U.K.) aged 15 to 71 and found that 95 percent of them used “xx” in text messages, emails and instant messages.
British people have used kisses to sign off their letters and greeting cards as far back as 1763, according to Cahill. Winston Churchill was an early proponent, closing one letter he sent in 1894 with: “Please excuse bad writing as I am in an awful hurry. (Many kisses.) xxx WSC.”
Why the letter X, long a way illiterate people signed their letters, was picked to represent kisses is unclear — some linguists believe it was because its pronunciation sounds similar to the word “kiss” — but it spread quickly to adjacent countries and former colonies like Australia.
Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has received “bises,” which French-English dictionaries translate to “x” or “xx,” from some of his closer French colleagues since at least the 1980s.
“It’s been a thing my whole life,” said Alice Bugeja, a fourth-year student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. She grew up in Chichester, in Southeast England, but spent a few years as a child living in Ohio. “When I lived in America and sent messages to my friends, it came off as really unfriendly that they didn’t respond with an ‘x,’” she said.
But it’s Americans, of course, who have taken x’s to the nth degree, and are now using them in the workplace and even with unlikely recipients like their doctors or lawyers.
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who is writing a book on internet language, has received emails from strangers seeking career advice that feature the once-intimate signoff. She attributes its unexpected usage to our sheer boredom with the other options on offer: “Best” sounds robotic, and “Thanks” isn’t always relevant.
Known as phatic expressions, these closing niceties are used more for their social function than their literal meaning, McCulloch said, like asking someone “How are you?” because it’s the polite thing to do, not because you’re interested in a detailed breakdown of their mental health.
“You need these kinds of signals in text conversations because they can otherwise seem abrupt,” Cahill said.
In that sense, “xx” is not really about kisses at all, but simply a friendly parting gesture, the letter equivalent of a smiling emoji. Which, let’s face it, is even worse.