How “XOXO” Came to Mean “Hugs and Kisses”

Dev asks: Why does XOXO mean hugs and kisses?

XOXO2You’ve seen XO as a sign-off representing love, affection, or friendship on letters, cards, emails, chat rooms and text messages. You may have even been torn on whether or not to include both the X and the O, considering one signifies hugs and the other means kisses. Use the incorrect symbol, and one could get the wrong idea! 😉

We can’t be 100% sure why or how XOXO ultimately came to mean “hugs and kisses”, but we do at least have a reasonably good theory to work with on the “X” part.

Signing letters with an ‘X’ dates back to the Middle Ages.  At this time, many couldn’t read or write, so this was an easy way for someone to sign something and, particularly in legal documents, assert that whatever was said in the document was true.  Specifically, the X represented a Christian cross/Christ at this time, so by signing X, you’re essentially saying “In Christ’s name, it’s true / I assert.”

“X” first started being used as a substitute for “Christ” by religious scholars about a millennia ago, which is actually how we ultimately got Xmas as an alternative name for Christmas. The X here is not actually the English X, but rather the Greek letter “Chi”, short for the Greek for Christ, greek-for-christ.

In any event, the X was thus used on documents in this way. It is thought that perhaps the X made the jump to “kiss” as people sometimes would kiss the X (Christ), in the same way some would kiss the Bible- in this context more or less “sealing it with a kiss”.

An alternate, somewhat less likely theory that’s popped up very recently is that the X simply looks like someone puckering up for a kiss, or two people kissing… two people with triangular faces apparently.

Whatever the case, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first usage of X’s to mean “kisses” came in a letter by a priest, Gilbert White in 1763:

Madame, … In the whole it is best that I have been the loser [of a friendly bet], as it would not be safe in all appearances to receive even so much as a pin from your Hands.

I am with many a xxxxxxx and many a Pater noster (Our Father) and Ave Maria (Hail Mary), Gil. White.

However, while we can’t say for sure, it seems just as likely that he actually meant “blessings” not “kisses”, as pointed out by Stephen Goranson of Duke University.  He noted the lack of any other instance of “X” meaning kisses for around another century after this letter.  Further, in Daniel Defoe’s 1719 work Robinson Crusoe, we have this, among other, reference using crosses (in this case physical crossing) as “blessings”:

There was a letter of my partner’s, congratulating me very affectionately upon my being alive, giving me an account how the estate was improved, and what it produced a year; with the particulars of the number of squares, or acres that it contained, how planted, how many slaves there were upon it: and making two-and-twenty crosses for blessings, told me he had said so many AVE MARIAS to thank the Blessed Virgin that I was alive

Whatever the case, around the mid-19th century we start to have numerous references to “X’s” meaning “kisses”, such as in Aunt Judy’s Magazine (Issue XI p. 669 which is thought to have been published between 1866-1885), where one person notes: “All these crosses mean kisses, Jemima told me.”

From this, at least we know the “X’s” meaning “kisses” preceded “O’s” as “hugs” as there are no such references up to this time of the latter, so that’s something I guess.

If you weren’t satisfied with the lack of definitiveness of the “X” part of things, you’ll be even less so with the “O” symbolizing the hug. The most popular theory here pre-supposes the reasonably likely X / Christ signing theory is correct. The theory then goes that the “O” is of North American descent, with illiterate Jewish immigrants who couldn’t sign their own John Hancock arriving to the U.S. and refusing to sign with the X (Christ/Cross) and instead using a circle on documents for a signature.  (Incidentally, many etymologists believe this is how the derogatory racial slur for Jewish people “kike” came about, “kikel” being the Yiddish word for circle- Jews being associated with circles as that’s how illiterate Jews would sign, rather than with the “Christian” X.)

Many people believe the “O” made the jump to meaning “hug” because, by looking down on the O from above and squinting just right, it sort of resembles two people embracing, but this is just pure speculation. It’s also been speculated that the “O” was perhaps not chosen for the Jewish reason, but rather was in connection with tic-tac-toe, which popped up shortly after the first confirmed references to “X’s” meaning “kisses”. Thus, once it became common to have a single letter to mark “kisses”, there was a need for a similar letter for another form of physical affection, hugging, and the game of tic-tac-toe perhaps provided the inspiration… Or perhaps it was the other way around… or maybe it really was the Jewish signing method that provided the XOXO inspiration.  And perhaps, in either case, the “O” sort of looking like hugging contributing to the choice, or perhaps not!  We just don’t know!  This is fun!

Now I know what you’re thinking, if the “X” means “kisses” and the “O” means “hugs”, why do we say “hugs and kisses” when someone writes XOXO and not “kisses and hugs”?  That one’s also largely still up for debate as well. (I know, you’re shocked.) Is it simply because one does not want to presumptuously go for a kiss when you haven’t even hugged yet? Is it?!?! 😉

One alternate theory that has gained a little traction over the years, is that the above theories on the “X” and “O’s” are all wrong and it is the X that means hugs, mimicking two people embracing, and the O that appears to be a mouth puckered for a kiss, hence why it’s “hugs and kisses”.  Given that we know from documented references that X’s first meant kisses before XOXO came about or “O’s” meant “hugs”, we can safely ignore this latter theory.

One thing we do know for certain, this post now holds the new record for being the least definitive article ever published by TodayIFoundOut.com.  But, at the least, I hope it was an interesting read. It certainly was interesting to research. 😉

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

  • The debate is still out on whether XO is appropriate when corresponding with clients or co-workers. Women, such as high-profile media mavens Diane Sawyer and Arianna Huffington, use XO as a common sign-off. Some say using XO prior to signing one’s name lightens business correspondence and keeps things casual. Others say they use XO often personally, but never at work, due to lack of professionalism. It appears to be heavily favored by females as opposed to men. XO also seems more common in relaxed industries such as arts and entertainment, like theatre and museums. It may not receive the same friendly response in a corporate, more serious work atmosphere. One Washington-based consultant, Karli Kasonik, feels as though XO has taken on a life of its own. Many believe social media has given XO new meaning and a platform for overuse. Some say it’s simply easier to write, as opposed to a signoff of “Thank you for your time,” or “I enjoyed seeing you today,” indicating XO is less effort than typing a few extra words. Or because XO is a less aggressive attempt to wrap up what you had to say more directly, softening the blow. Or when you were forced to cancel that lunch with a friend. “Sorry to miss our lunch today. XO~Deborah.” How you can you be mad at that? I’m sorry AND sent hugs and kisses! Figurative hugs… and kisses!  What more do you want from me? 😉
  • Do a Google search on XOXO, and one will see more than the origin. XOXO is also a clothing company, a purse brand, a popular hashtag on twitter, music video and more. The signoff has expanded over the years into far more than a mere form of correspondence.
  • Among Twitter users, 11% of women XO in tweets, compared with only 2.5% of men. No touching!
  • There are other variations of XO to use when communicating, which indicate the level of affection. The International Committee for Relatively Pointless Abbreviations and Badly Misspelled Acronyms (SPUDS) has just released a new internationally approved list of abbreviated signoffs.  These include:  ooo = hugs; xxx = kisses; OOO = big hugs;  XXX = big kisses; oo = hugs for everybody but you; OO! = big, excited hugs; CCC = hugs for people you can’t quite reach around; and zzz = snoring.
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30 comments

  • Dave Smiling Coyote

    So when I’m writing a love letter, I’m really signing it “With many Jews and Christians, Dave”?

  • XXX are said to be the 3 birds that followed Angus,the god of dreams .

  • The ‘X’ has nothing whatsoever to do with a cross relating to religion.
    Those who couldn’t write put a cross on the paper to represent a cross over the heart, as in, “Cross my heart and hope to die”.
    This relates to putting a cross on the heart to aim the arrow of death for lying.

  • Unlike many other articles here (even those that contain slight inaccuracies), this is not convincing; there is not much of substance with regards to accurate references here, imho.

    I’ve read at least two other slightly diverging accounts: one stating that the Xs stand for Love, since that’s all you got when you were so dirt poor and illiterate that you had to sign your name with an X (as evidenced in Tennis, where Love is a stand-in for Zero). This is similar to, and not mutually exclusive from, the comment/explanation made by Jonde, above.

    The other is practically the exact opposite of most, including one, of the theories in this article: that the O resembles the shape of lips about to kiss while the X represents a set of arms crossing behind the other’s back (and by the look of things, resting its set of hands on the other’s buttocks, but that’s another story).

  • I would think “hugs and kisses” is used orally just because it sounds better than “kisses and hugs”…

  • The ‘X’ is the symbol for hugs, because it looks like two arms in the back, hugging a person tightly. The ‘O’ is the shape of the lips when kissing someone.

  • This was a very witty and funny article. Thank you for the best read of the day.

  • All this time I thought the X was for hug and the O was for kiss (since we say x’s and o’s/hugs and kisses).

  • I certainly would discourage anyone from using xoxo in a letter to a co-worker. Would you actually say hugs and kisses to that person if you were speaking to them? I think you would get a real quick trip to the human resources office. I know a guy who said to a secretary “All you women do is type recipe cards.” which in the particular case was true and he was put on a one year probation for sexual harassment. Another worker was hauled in and warned never to call a women “Honey” again.

  • Now I get it!!!. X is really 2 persons smooching and O is a shape you made when you embrace someone. Right?

  • X was light years before Christ or Greeks…just sayin’…another one…lol

  • Hmm… how easily it is to get lost in writing. I am as old as houses and back in my school days in my country girls were already writing kisses on notes and letters with xxx. Long before we knew all the and long before sms letxalobe mobilecphones or phones with text messages or computers. Xoxo in portuguese is a kiss… probably in Spanish too. Jews… the eternal racists with the circle. Right hey Ltd to encircle people. They did it to me in the war in Europe so now I do it to the Palestinians. No I am not racist. I just look at things the right way. Signing with X. Well many people did it and some still do in countries where some people cannot sign stil. On official documents they then place a finger print. No has nothing to do with christina. Ignore just happens that 2 crossed lines are easy to identify as belonging to someone. So it is done like that. So much research to leave out the reality of the world wd still live in. XO in messages is simply a kiss and cuddle. I rest my case and I don’t have a degree in sociology. Happy new year folks.

  • Concerning: “X as an abbreviation for Jesus”.

    Actually the “X” is not the letter [ex]. Instead it is the Greek letter [chi] which was traditionally used as a standard abbreviation for “Christ”.

    For example, compare “Xmas” ==> “Christmas”.

    In a little more detail, in pre-printing days, when manuscripts were common, it was common practice to use so-called “nomina sacra” in which the first one or two letters of a sacred name was combined with the last letter in the name (the last letter indicating the linguistic case of the noun). A short line was then drawn over the combination of letters. Consequently X/[CHI] was commonly used for Christus/Christ.

    (Likewise, the abbreviation “IHS”, which is often mistranslated as if it were in Latin, as something like “In Hoc Signo” (i.e. “In This Sign”) actually had its origin in Greek where the “H” is actually the “uppercase” form of the Greek letter [ETA]. “Jesus” in Greek is written as “IESOUS” or [IOTA][ETA][SIGMA][OMICRON][UPSILON][SIGMA] and so would be “abbreviated” as “IHS” or [IOTA][ETA][SIGMA].

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