By Thomas Manss (designer) and Mike Reed (writer)
Malcolm was Little for 27 years. Then he became X and got a great deal bigger. The roots of that change ran deep. His father Earl Little, a civil rights activist, was killed in 1931, two years after the family home burned down. Both were classed as accidents by the police. Meanwhile, Malcolm's ambitions were brutally crushed: a teacher told him the law was 'no realistic goal for a nigger'. After turning to crime, Malcolm education himself in prison, copying the entire dictionary in longhand. He also discovered the Nation of Islam. He took the name 'X' to represent his family's lost African name, which had been replaced by the 'slave name' Little. Malcolm left the NOI, disillusioned, in 1963. In February 1965, he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom, New York. Three NOI men were convicted: Talmadge Hayer, Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. (NOI Members with the same surnames were given numbers to tell them apart.) But Malcolm X's place in the history of civil rights was already assured. The writer Douglas Coupland is credited with popularising the term 'Generation X' to describe those born in the 1960s and 70s, who drifted into bleak lives and 'McJobs'. Coupland says, 'the whole point is that there never was or will be a definition.' But there is a sensibility. When a fellow named Warren badgered Coupland to produce branded T-shirts, Coupland said: 'Warren, keep your money, because nothing could be less X than wearing a T-shirt saying Generation X.' If you understand why, maybe you understand X. For the writer of this poster, an Englishman, x provides a measure of his words. 'x-height' is a standard measurement of any typeface - the height of its lower-case letters, not including 'ascenders; or 'descenders'. (This isn't the same as point size, which varies between fonts.) But as usual, when you think you've found some sort of consistent standard, it vanishes. For the designer of this poster, a German, typefaces are measured by their 'n-height'. Typical. 'X marks the spot' is often associated with Treasure Island, but the phrase never appears in the book. Its origin is as deeply buried as pirate gold. Some more modern 'pirates', though, have had reason to fear X. In 1930, a book of photographs, X Marks the Spot: Chicago Gang Wars in Pictures exposed gangland brutality. It also horrified Al Capone that he ordered it cleared from the shelves. And in Howard Hawks; 1931 movie Scarface, signifies death: when Boris Karloff is killed in a bowling alley, for instance, a ball scatters all the skittles - a "strike", marked with an X. In 1984, the Canadian poet and musician Robert Priest wrote a story called The Man Who Broke Out of the Letter X, in which a 'beautiful' man breaks out of the letter X and runs screaming in terror around an unnamed city. He's finally caught in a net and dies, horrified. It is a very, very peculiar story indeed. During the Middle Ages, illiterates (which was just about everybody), signed their names with the sign of the Cross, then sealed it with a kiss. So x became a kiss. An X on a beer cask used to mean the ten-shilling duty had been paid. So it became a sign of good quality. Later trademarks used XX or XXX to suggest strength. We still think of X (which replaced the original H for 'Horror' in 1951) as the sign of strong cinematic stuff 20 years after it was replaced by the less emotive 18. Although not all filmmakers have forgotten the advantages of being branded XXX. X is well known as a sign for the mysterious and unknown. We have The X-Files, Brand X, the X Factor and X-Men. In algebra, x is the basic symbol for an unknown quantity. Some say this is all René Descartes' fault. He chose Z as his primary unknown, then he worked backwards through Y and X. Legend has it that his printer kept running out of Zs and Ys, but had plenty of Xs. So x became the basic sign of the unknown in Descartes' Géometrie. (Certainly, 19th Century printers had a habit of using x when they ran out of other letters.) Another theory is that the Arabic shei (which means 'a thing' or 'something') was translated into Greek as xei. Victor Hugo's theory was that 'x signifies crossed swords, combat - who will be the victor? Nobody knows - that is why philosophers used x to signify fate and the mathematicians took it for the unknown'. But that's writers for you. It seems fitting that the origins of X as a symbol of the unknown are themselves a bit of a mystery. X hasn't been a proper letter for centuries. The Romans attached the Greek sound 'ks' from xi to the Greek letter chi previously a 'ch' sound. (This was the first letter of 'Christ', which is why we have Xmas.) In English, unlike other letters, X doesn't have its own sound. As Ben Johnson said, X 'is rather an abbreviation, or way or short writing…, than a Letter. For it hath the sound of k and s.' In fact it hath the sounds of many letters. X in zylophone, for egzample, sounds different to X in ankshious or ekzamine. That makes it, according to Ambrose Bierce, 'a needless letter'. Maybe even an ex-letter? NEW LIGHT SEES THROUGH FLESH TO BONES! yelled the newspapers. In November 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a new form of radiation so mysterious he named it after the mathematician unknown: 'x-rays', Roentgen won the first ever Nobel prize for Physics, while 'bone portrait' studios sprung up everywhere, and a London firm produced 'x-ray-proof' lead underwear. An Iowa farmer even claimed to have used x-rays to transform base metal into gold. But everybody saw straight through that one.