Elon Musk and the Letter X – What’s Behind Musk’s Affinity For X?23rd Aug 2023
When the world’s richest man bought one of the biggest social media platforms, Twitter, it was bound to make headline news. Elon Musk’s love of Twitter wasn’t news to anyone, though. As well as having the most followers in the platform’s history, Musk had made no secret of his intentions to purchase Twitter.
One development that did come as a shock to many, was the total rebrand Twitter would now undergo…
On 23rd July 2023 Twitter users saw the famous bird icon replaced by an X icon, and the news that Twitter would be rebranding. This was no publicity stunt. The official name of the business changed to X Corp, and Musk tweeted (if we can still call it that): “And soon we shall bid adieu to the Twitter brand and, gradually, all the birds.”
The move is part of Musk’s intention to turn what used to be Twitter into “the everything app.” There are rumours of integrating payment platforms and more as the site moves away from merely being a social network. The vision is similar to that of “Meta”.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been shocked. Musk’s history with the letter X goes back to the days when he was a millionaire rather than a billionaire. His obsession with the letter has become far more evident as he has moved into the public eye even more prominently, but the story begins when he was involved in a young startup called PayPal.
In 1999 Musk founded an online payment company which he called X.com. Eventually, the company would merge with Confinity and become what we all now know as PayPal. Musk would be CEO of the company.
It is widely reported that Musk wanted to keep the name X and to allow for a much wider scope of operation than just payments and transfers. His plan, even then, seemed to be total domination, and a name as vague as X allows for evolution. Discussing the naming choice, he said that limiting the company name to PayPal “would be like Apple calling itself the Mac.”
One of the reasons why Musk was outvoted on the issue is the fact that “X” has adult connotations, especially when in the context of the internet. The domain X.com would be assumed by some to be NSFW, regardless of its content.
In 2017, Musk bought the domain X.com from PayPal once more, and cited sentimental reasons for the purchase. However, the domain has now been put to use, so it seems there was more to it than just “old time’s sake”.
SpaceX, of course
Once you start looking, you’ll see that there are Xs littered throughout Musk’s entrepreneurial history.
SpaceX was founded in 2002, and while the X is taken from the word “exploration”, it quickly becomes apparent why this branding was chosen. Musk’s rockets provided a space for experimentation with naming. As SpaceX has grown to be the world’s largest private space company, rockets, including the Falcon Rocket and tech like the Dragon Capsule have given Elon an outlet for his naming flair.
Elon could finally use his X symbol regularly, but it seemed this wasn’t enough for him…
Tesla Model X
The next of the huge endeavours with Musk at the helm was Tesla. When it came to naming the electric car business, the process involved no X! Instead, the name was an obvious tribute to the inventor and pioneer in electrical sciences, Nikola Tesla. In fact, the name wasn’t strictly invented by Musk, and the idea to use it for a company in the field had belonged to a man from Sacramento.
Musk explained: “We didn’t actually come up with the name Tesla Motors. We didn’t own the name. A guy in Sacramento came up with the name and owned the name. We had to buy it off him for $75,000.”
So, there is no X in this name until they released one of their flagship models. It’s name? The Model X.
Supposedly, the name comes from the X-shape that is made by the doors as they lift and open upwards. “They’re called falcon-wing doors because they look like a falcon in flight,” Musk explained to a Forbes reporter at a launch event. Though this may be one of the reasons for the name, it is certainly hard to rule out the fact that Musk has an affinity with the letter and may well have jumped at the opportunity to use it in the name of his product.
Many claim that the names of the Tesla models are also part of an in-joke due to the fact that they spell out S3XY.
This would not be the end of the professional relationship between Musk and the 24th letter. In fact, some of his business is done through a holding company by the name of X Holdings. It was announced that this would be the parent company of X Corps (formerly Twitter).
Now, at the peak of his powers, it seems Musk is getting his way by including X in the majority of his branding. Another development in 2023 was the founding of an artificial intelligence company called xAI. Musk announced the formation of xAI on July 12th, 2023, and the date (7 + 12 + 23 = 42) is a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The use of X in the title seems to be based purely on his personal preference.
X Æ A-12
One of the most famous uses of the letter in Musk’s life has been the naming of his child X Æ A-12.
Mother of X Æ A-12, Grimes, explained the reasoning for the name (ironically via a tweet):
•X, the unknown variable
•Æ, my elven spelling of Ai (love &/or Artificial intelligence)
•A-12 = precursor to SR-17 (our favourite aircraft). No weapons, no defences, just speed. Great in battle, but non-violent
(A=Archangel, my favourite song)
The Æ symbol is not actually allowed on Californian birth certificates, which has led to some people speculating as to whether the name is different on the legal forms.
Musk has said publicly that he likes the letter X, but hasn’t explained much more than that. Upon the rebranding of Twitter, he explained part of his reasoning: “If a good enough X logo is posted tonight, we’ll make go live worldwide tomorrow. To embody the imperfections in us all that make us unique.”
Imperfection is not the first thing we think of when the letter X is mentioned. Historically, the letter may have been used as a placeholder for things, and as a way of marking treasure on a map, which could be one of the connotations that brings a positive feeling to the word. We all know the saying, “X marks the spot”.
Everything and nothing at once
Perhaps it is the ambiguity of X that Musk is drawn to. The fact that the meaning can be virtually nothing. Jamin Pelkey, who is a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and also the author of a book called The Semiotics of X, explained in an interview with The Atlantic: “X is both an empty signifier and a signifier of everything … You cannot pin it down or say it means this and only this.”
Once you start to delve into the meaning of X, it actually has an incredible depth and breadth of meaning. For some people, the letter X even has religious senses due to symbolising a cross. In algebra, X means the variable as opposed to the constant. “Solve for X” or “find the value of X” may be part of a mathematical equation.
Ancient Romans used X as a numeral (still used today in examples like the iPhone X). In Ancient Greece, the letter X was added from the Phoenician alphabet and represented a kh sound, which evolved to the sound that we now associate with X.
It is interesting to theorise on the reasoning behind Musk’s use of X. Perhaps the consistency across all of his businesses is merely down to branding. Maybe he was a massive fan of the X-Files. We may never know the entire story behind it, but Twitter’s move to X.com is the latest in a long history of the South African entrepreneur’s use of the letter.