The other day, my daughter asked my why we need a letter “x”. Or “q” or “c” for that matter.
Good questions, especially when she was giving alternate spellings for words that normally have those letters. For instance, xylophone or pretty much any word that begins the letter “x” can usually just begin with the seemingly more appropriate letter “z”. Or take “q”. It’s pretty useless without a “u” immediately following it and pretty much always sounds like “kw”. And “c” has such a multiple personality disorder with it sometimes sounding like as “s” (circus), or a “k”, or (um, circus) a “ch” or even “sh”, all on its own.
So I thought about all these strange letter issues and began to relate to my daughter the complex history of the letter business.
For instance, the letter “x” was once owned by a very wealthy, reclusive, oil baron back in the early 1900’s. During that time, he put a lot of money and effort in getting his letter “x” more exposure. One of his big victories is when he was able to convince a powerful government word regulation group to start using “x” at the beginning of some words that previously began with “z”. “X” had often been found inside of words, but not until this guy and his efforts to promote the letter did “x” start appearing first in words.
Later, this same man ended up buying “z” and several other offbeat letters (he could never get “q” though he tried; that is another interesting story involving another powerful mogul). Through his acquisitions he was able to get some of his letters promoted to greater visibility, but it wasn’t until he started making deals with other industries such as the auto industry, one of his most successful engagements, that he was really able to get his letters moving.
The man just happened to own two letters that the auto industry wanted, and he was able to make several deals involving his prized “x” and “z” as key letters in automobile model names. As an aside, when the Ford Model T came out, the letter T was in the public domain and available to any party, for private or commercial use.
Anyway, “x” and “z” were later used in many car name such as Nissan’s “z” series, some BMW models, and many American models over the years. His business was international, which is why he was able to reach across national boundaries. Of course, not every country uses z or x, so he was limited in some ways. As much as he tried to get his letters into foreign markets, his efforts didn’t always result in success.
But after years of this man’s efforts, and others like him during the early part of the 20th century, many letters came to prominence and others started to be used in many new and different ways. The letter ‘c’ was one of those letters (no company was able to own vowels). ‘C’ was not actually very useful since other letters did the job quite well. Through the efforts of another wealthy industrialist, the letter ‘c’ started to be found in words where ‘s’ was always used just fine. Then, it started being used in place of ‘ch’ and ‘sh’.
The whole thing started getting out of control until in the mid 1970’s the government started regulating private ownership of letters. Soon, after much public outcry and more stringent regulations, the ownership of letters became too bothersome and wasn’t as lucrative as it once was. Indeed, the business reasons for owning letters had pretty much been drying up over the years. Partly because of letters entering into public domain after certain periods of private ownership, and partly because of lack of new markets and products (no new letters had been discovered over the past 100 years, and innovation had crawled to a halt).
In the early 80’s, Congress passed the Letter Reconciliation Act (LETRA) which opened all remaining privately owned letters to the public. Since then, the effects of what was done in all the previous years by the corporations that owned them had pretty much stuck. Dictionaries and educators were not in any hurry to start rewriting word spellings.
And that’s why words have the letters they have now. So when you come to a word that is oddly spelled or looks like it could be spelled much better with more obvious letters, remember that there was probably a letter baron behind it somewhere.