Why Does XOXO Mean “Hugs and Kisses”?

(Last Updated On: August 13, 2019)

Why does XOXO Mean "Hugs and Kisses"?

Why Does XOXO Mean “Hugs and Kisses”?

If you frequently text a lot of people, you’ve probably found that there are two types; those who don’t abbreviate anything, and those who make liberal use of “u,” “ur,” “bc,” etc. Of those shorthand words, you’ve likely come across “XOXO.” If you haven’t, you’ve probably at least seen it on Valentine’s Day decorations and those weird sugar heart candies. At any rate, you undoubtedly understand “XOXO” to mean “hugs and kisses,” but maybe you haven’t stopped to wonder why that is?

Further Reading: Who Was Saint Valentine?

What We Do & Don’t Know About XOXO

The answer to your text based troubles is actually a lot more confusing than it might seem. Mostly because we don’t actually know where half of it came from. We can hazard a pretty good guess at the “X” part, but the “O” seems to remain fairly elusive. 

The Relationship Between Jesus and X

A lot of mannerisms in the English language make their way back to the Christians in some way or another. The current running theories about the “X” part of “XOXO” are no different. Since the Middle Ages the letter “X” has been used in reference to the Christian cross. Given that people in the Middle Ages were probably more concerned about dying from bacterial infections (or dancing plagues), a lot of them were illiterate. As such, there was need for a mark to signify that a document was important regardless of literacy.

Thus, the “X” (in reference to the cross) was signed onto important documents and letters. Mimicking other behaviors, it was common to kiss the “X” as well to display sincerity (people would often kiss their Bibles back then to display their faith in Christ). 

For those interested, Oxford English Dictionary asserts the first recorded use we have of “X” meaning “kisses” dates back to 1763 in a letter written by a priest.

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.

Too bad this isn’t set in stone though, since it’s pretty likely that our Gil. White (Gilbert White) actually meant “blessings” instead of “kisses.” This is corroborated by the use of an “X” to signify “blessings” in the 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe. We do know that “X” started to become securely associated with kisses by the mid 19th century. We’re also fairly certain the “X” in “XOXO” predates the “O.” Probably.

More Christian Mannerisms: Why Do People Say Holy Mackerel?

But What About the O?

The “O” part of “XOXO” is a little more difficult to pin down, but the most common theory associates it with the Jewish. There’s a bit of a hitch though. The theory regarding “O” assumes the theory about “X” we just talked about is right; seeing as how up in the air a good chunk of details are, it’s possible both these theories are wrong and we won’t know for a while, if ever, what the true origin is.

With all that said, the most common theory assumes the “O” is from North America, dating to the first Jewish immigrants arriving in the Americas. It holds that they refused to sign with an “X,” choosing to use a circle (“O”) instead. Eventually, both the “O” and “X” just kind of got conflated with affection and thus, “hugs and kisses.”

If the “O” was used by illiterate Jewish people in the same way “X” was used by illiterate Christian people, it would explain the Jewish slur that roughly translates to the Yiddish word for “circle,” according to etymologists.

Other Theories About XOXO Meaning “Hugs and Kisses”

The two theories we presented are generally considered the most plausible ones. But that doesn’t stop a bunch of weird conclusions people have made over time.

One such conclusion holds that the “X” has Christian roots as we’ve discussed. But instead of “O” having Jewish roots, it has roots in tic-tac-toe. Since some of the earliest recorded uses of “X” as a euphemism for “kisses” coincide with the popularity of tic-tac-toe, some think that the people just needed a letter to associate with hugs. Hence “O.”

Others think that the “X” loosely resembles two people kissing, if they had triangular lips. That, or someone puckering their face for a kiss. They also would say the letter “O” resembles two people embracing (from above), at least the shape their arms make. We’re not sure where the origin of these theories lie, but they’re a fun time. 

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.