Following an article about the A-B-C’s during early school years, I was asked if any prior Les Vieux Temps articles included titles that began with every letter of the alphabet.
“No,” I responded. “It was difficult to write a story about the olden days with a subject beginning with the letter X when I was not familiar with any.” I assured the person that I would think about it for a future article.
But the early Cajun people were very familiar with the letter X, although not at the beginning of words.
I remember my grandfather being asked by some English speaking lawyer or agent to sign property deeds, mineral leases and other documents. Grandfather, like most Cajuns during the early twentieth century, did not speak, and barely understood, English. They did know, however, when they were told to place an X in a blank that it signified agreement and represented their signature to a transaction. When they did not agree on something, a big X was drawn across the sentence or paragraph. Grandpa knew that it meant “to take out.”
I also remember grandfather coming back from the hospital in New Orleans, and explaining to us that he had taken some x-rays.
X-ray is an English word which has no French translation. It is another example of Cajuns using words from a different language and adopting its usage.
Words ending in the letter X are very popular. “Geaux Tigers” and “Geaux Cajuns” are known worldwide. This is a play on words for common Cajun names such as Babineaux, Thibodeaux and Boudreaux that ends with the “O” sound. Many have speculated as to why the X has been added to a person’s last name when it was not included in their ancestor’s names in France and Canada. I agree with those who claim that the X stood for “the family of” or “the plural of.”
My wife’s grandma would greatly disagree with my assumption on the spelling of some last names. She would always tell us that the Guilbeaux family, with the X, were the rich people, whereas those that left the X out at the end of the name were poor, and couldn’t afford the X. She spelled her last name Guilbeau.
And my third grade teacher would always tell us that X meant the same as multiply. Like 2x2 is 4. That wasn’t too complicated, until my tenth grade teacher told us that X was a variable.
I remember that during recess many of us would play games at school.
Students would draw a little symbol on the ground as they would say “mettez un X.” That meant “mark the spot” where the knife is to be flipped, or marble would be dropped.
And who can remember that Jour de Noël was sometimes spelled by the English, Xmas.
An X on bottles, ships and signs usually meant danger.
Even father’s two mules, Ned and Joe, pulling the wagon to Darby’s cotton gin, knew that the big X sign before the railroad tracks was a symbol that meant whoa (stop in horse language).
Yes, there are no French words beginning with an X in our French dictionary, but the letter was one that was well known and understood by our grandparents.
And I do expect readers to remind me of examples where the letter was used as the first letter of French words.
(Comments and suggestions about Les Vieux Temps articles are always appreciated. Please call 337-754-9980 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)