So I get this e-mail from a friend:
X in Xmas represents Christ. The “-mas” part is from the Latin-derived Old English word for “mass,” while the “X” comes from the Greek letter Chi, which is the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός, translated [Ed.: transliterated would be better] as “Christ.” So, a little research reveals historic Christian tradition instead of contributing to delusions of persecution.
This was posted by Dr. X…on Facebook.
Do you agree with her assessment?
So I wrote this reply to my friend:
She is right about its origin, and that origin goes back to at least 1551. Some people in the distant past even wrote the word, “Xstmas,” showing that they didn’t mean to remove Christ.
But usage determines meaning, so what matters most is not the origin of this tradition but what most people use it to mean today. Now what most people mean by it I really don’t know for sure; probably some people do use it to remove Christ. But I checked Merriam-Webster and the OED and neither of them gave any indication that such an offensive use was common enough to be noted as a sense of the word. I think it’s safe to use Xmas, though I’ve never preferred it myself.
If I were really exercised about it, I would probably do a Google search and Google Books search for “xmas” and look at 100 contemporary uses or so. I would see how many people are using it offensively and how many aren’t. This is also a way I check for what is the most preferred spelling of a word; often one spelling will have millions of hits and another just a few hundred.
But bloggers can’t do that kind of research, or blogs would lose their reputation for producing quickly posted, half-thought-out drivel. So I’ll stop here.
Update: Wikipedia pointed me to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, which suggests that Xmas used to be used mostly by educated writers who knew Greek. Xmas today, however, is largely used in advertising, where space matters. Such an association has not helped it to sound respectful, M-W comments. I thought that was judicious.