Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Solving for X in Xmas

And getting it wrong

Henry Morris III has enlisted in the ranks of the defenders in the war on Christmas. In the December 2010 issue of Acts & Facts from the Institute for Creation Research, Dr. Morris presents us with “Xmas: Removing the Reason for the Season”:
Sometime during the last century (it is difficult to find an actual beginning), the word “Xmas” began creeping into public correspondence and advertisements. It was a little thing, hardly noticed by anyone, but it set the stage for a profound movement away from “Christ” in any public discourse. X is, of course, the universal symbol for the unknown.2
Scary, isn't it? Morris sums up:
Quietly and unobtrusively at first, but rising to a crescendo of legal and governmental attacks against Christianity, the words and the symbols of the gospel message are being purged from open expression.
Permit me, however, to register a mildly dissenting note. When it comes to scholarship, creationists have the advantage of not having to respect factual data. Morris follows this template himself, but stumbles slightly by letting the truth slip in. If you go to the bottom of his article to check out footnote 2, you'll see that Morris admitted to something that vitiates his entire argument:
2. X has long been a mathematical symbol for an unknown variable. X later came into use as an abbreviation for the name Christ because it is the first letter of the Greek word for “Christ.” To the vast majority of people in our culture, however, the X in “Xmas” would be completely meaningless, effectively removing the Reason for the season.
Indeed. I was quite used to seeing the “chi-rho” in my parish church when I was a child. The chi looks like an X and stands for the “Ch” in “Christ.” It does not stand for “the unknown.”


Morris has his history all wrong. In his compendious History of Mathematical Notations, Florian Cajori points out something important in Paragraph 340:
The use of z, y, x .... to represent unknowns is due to René Descartes, in his La géométrie (1637).
And “later” it became a symbol for Christ? No, Dr. Morris, you've got it all wrong—unless the early Christians occupied catacombs under the streets of Paris in the seventeenth century.

I'm sure you're accustomed to getting away with falsehoods, Dr. Morris, but you should be more careful about making a fool of yourself in your pseudo-scholarly footnotes. Have a merry Xmas anyway.


Billy C said...

FWIW, according to the Oxford English Dictionary the earliest documented use of "X" to abbreviate the English word "Christmas" (as "X'temmas") is from 1551.

cody said...

When I was little I asked about the x-mas abbreviation and was told the x resembled a cross for christ or something like that. Very interesting to find out it is based on chi. And the Chi-Rho symbol, not sure I've ever noticed that before. And Billy C's comment, that's crazy to find out that "xmas" is in some ways older than "variable x"!

Margaret said...

I first learned the Xmas abbreviation from my Catholic mother some decades ago when I was a kid. Like Cody, I think I assumed the X was a cross.

Sili said...

I recall explaining the χρ to my Russian guide in the Pushkin museum (I think it was ...). Don't recall if the α and ω was there too.

Any chance you could check the dictionary for when the lightening-flash thingie came to represent contradiction?

Broggly said...

In the Anglican church I went to as a schoolboy, they used the capital A and Ω in places (I think I saw them on sets of candles there)

Liberality said...

I will redouble my efforts to use the term x-mas just to annoy these Christians as much as they annoy me. :)