Sarah Huckabee Sanders

It’s a four-letter word familiar to readers of tabloids and crawlers.

Spox is an abbreviation for spokesperson, which is itself a gender-neutral formation of the historically dominant spokesman. It’s neither an acronym, like Potus or Flotus, nor an initialism, like CIA. It’s just a shortened form.

We hear from many such individuals, whose task is almost always to neutralize negative reactions to something done by a group or an administration.

The White House spox is a famously difficult position, and not infrequently a target of blistering satire. In academe, many a spox has been kept busy explaining one campus event or another, episodes in educational history that range from the morally repellent to just garden-variety awkward.

Whether in Washington or at State U, you don’t need a spox  when things go well. That’s when top administrators are eager, as they should be, to walk into the spotlight and deliver good news.

By the way, if you’re part of a duo and each of you has a spox, you may find the fourth estate, or at least Fox News, referring to your spoxes, as happened to the Clintons, each of whom had a spokesperson to do the spoking for them.

The term spox  rates no column millimeters in the Oxford English Dictionary. Under the entry for pox, however, one can be reacquainted with that generic term for diseases with the prefixes chicken, cow, or small, and onward to syphilis, after which there’s really nowhere to go.

Readers of Lingua Franca, especially Red Sox fans, will not be surprised that pox has its historical origin in pocks. Baseball historians are likely to know that moment when the cool spelling of socks  became sox, but it was probably not long after 1901, when the Boston club was founded.

The OED has a delicious citation for sox  from H.G. Wells’s Kipps (1905): “He abbreviated every word he could; he would have considered himself the laughing-stock of Wood Street if he had chanced to spell socks  in any way but ‘sox’.”

But how to pronounce spox?  Does one sound it like spocks, as in the plural of a certain famous pediatrician or enterprising Vulcan? Or do you say spokes, as in a wheel?

A site for the English Oxford Living Dictionaries (I’m not sure how those words are meant to connect) offers an entry with a recording in which a British-sounding fellow gives us both /spəʊks/and /spɒks/, which puts us back with the choice of your favorite Spock or your business at the cycling shop.

Whichever way you pronounce it, though, that substitutive x  can carry a lot of affect or a little.

Thanx  or thx  for thanks  seems innocent enough, harking back to the casual coolness Wells was documenting a century ago. It’s also easier to text the three letters of thx  than the exhausting labor of six for thanks. 

The gender-neutral honorific Mx.  turns that into a refusal of binaries. At the same time, the form claims a power to be something beyond an absence.

The brand name Spanx, manufacturer of the elasticated undergarments for women, is, I trust, gesturing toward spandex and not spanking.

Spandex, curiously, doesn’t seem to be an example of substituting for anything. Spandex, that miracle of 1960s textiles, is, as has been pointed out to me, an anagram of expands.  

Meanwhile, spox may be journalistic cool or front-page typesetting economy, aggressive casualness or a word with a built-in wild card.

A substitution, a concealment, an unknown: An has a lot of work to do.

As does a spox, who is always a substitution, frequently and necessarily holding something back, leaving us to wonder if we now know more or less than we did before.



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