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Friday, December 18, 2015

When did people start using "XOXO" to mean "hugs and kisses"?

After receiving a text with “XOXO” as the signoff, one of our patrons was curious about when and where the custom has originated. According to the 1965 book How Did It Begin? by R. Brasch, the X became synonymous with the kiss in the Middle Ages, when people would sign documents with an X and then kiss them to show their sincerity. However, Brasch offered no source for this information and didn’t mention the O, so we sought another source.

Around Valentine’s Day last year, Nadine Epstein wrote an article for the Washington Post on the history of X’s and O’s. She also traced the X back to its use as a signature, as well as its being used as a symbol for Christ (as in X-Mas). The Oxford English Dictionary attributes first use of “XXXXX” in a sign-off to a letter written in 1763, but the X’s there may have stood for “blessings” rather than “kisses.” In 1894, Winston Churchill wrote a letter to his mother that ended with “(Many kisses.) xxx” and a poem from 1893 mentions young women using “little crosses for kisses” in their love letters, so the custom can be traced back at least that far.

While the O is more of a mystery (although some people say it came to represent a hug because it visually resembles one), “XOXO” seems to have been around at least since the 1960s. Epstein even recalls her mother teaching her to end her letters that way.

For more information on letter-writing, Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note collects a variety of correspondence, and Laura Brown’s How to Write Anything gives advice on how to write letters, emails, and announcements. Both are available here at the Newton Falls Public Library.

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