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Curiosity Desk | May 30, 2018

Why Do We Spell Red Sox With An X?

Pedro Martinez
Former Boston Red Sox's Pedro Martinez warms up before a Red Sox alumni baseball game, Sunday, May 27, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
Michael Dwyer
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Curiosity Desk | May 30, 2018

Memorial Day is behind us and, with the Celtics done for the year, the boys of summer now command center stage in the sports world. And it’s the name of our beloved home baseball club, and its curious spelling, that led Roslindale listener Hannah Daye to reach out.

I was wondering why the Red Sox and the White Sox are spelled with an “x” when the word is “s-o-c-k-s?”
Hannah Daye

In the late 19th century, baseball was essentially a sporting startup. Professional teams in cities large and small were a new idea. Leagues came and went. And nicknames for all of these local clubs were unofficial — often invented by fan clubs or sportswriters.

"It was very common to refer to teams by what they wore. By the color of their uniforms, said Ben Zimmer, language columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Indeed, there were the Blues in Hartford and the Grays in Louisville. And in Boston, Chicago and St. Louis there was the Red Stockings, White Stockings, and Brown Stockings.

But as professional baseball began to truly take shape at the turn of the 20th century, those unofficial nicknames became an important part of each team’s burgeoning brand. And in the punchy, nickname-happy language of sports writing, “stockings” started to prove a bit problematic.

"Writing 'Red Stockings' or 'White Stockings' was a little too long for newspapers, especially in headlines," said Zimmer.

“Sox” worked far better. But why with an x?

The roots of that answer can be found almost a century earlier, in the work of one of the true titans of American language.

"The idea of simplified really goes back to Noah Webster who really wanted American English to be distinct from British English," explained Zimmer. "He thought that American spelling ought to be more rational, make more sense, because English spelling, of course, is a mess."

People all over the country had Webster’s dictionary. And his Blue Backed Speller was a staple in most schools for decades. And so, many of his spelling reforms took hold — and are still with us today.

"We spell color, "c-o-l-o-r" instead of "c-o-l-o-u-r; or theater, very often, with "e-r" rather than "r-e" at the end," said Zimmer.

Others? Not so much. For instance, Webster preferred to spell tongue, "tung," and ache, "ake." But his efforts inspired legions to continue to push for a simpler American English for decades after his death — everyone from educators to social reformers to politicians.

"For instance, Teddy Roosevelt." said Zimmer. "He actually tried to get the US Government to do some spelling reform which ended up failing."

Another big fan was Joseph Medill, the 19th century publisher of the Chicago Tribune. His paper was fond of shortening words like "through" to "thru", "pictures" to "pix" and — yes — "socks" to "sox."

"The Chicago Tribune liked that kind of spelling, and was influential — I think — in popularizing socks spelled "sox," said Zimmer.

And it wasn’t just on the sports pages.

We also see that “sox” spelled "s-o-x" showing up in advertising as a...commercial spelling," said Zimmer.

The “sox" trend held on in certain circles through the mid-20th century. But today, the last real vestige of “socks-with-an-x’ can be seen in those two venerable American League baseball teams. And, in a fun little twist, both teams essentially stole the name from their crosstown rivals.

"Boston had a team called the Boston Red Stockings which would become the Boston Braves in the National League," explained Zimmer. "Chicago had a team called the White Stockings that would become the Chicago Cubs. But of course the Red Sox and White Sox names would get revived when the American League was formed circa 1901."

Chicago’s American League club adopted White Sox as its official team name in 1903. Boston, after flirting with names like the Beaneaters, the Plymouth Rocks, and the Americans, officially became the Red Sox in 1908.

My thanks again to Roslindale's Hannah Daye for her question that led to today’s story. What’s yours? Email me at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. Who knows? I might just look into it for you.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
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