It’s not ‘X’, it’s ‘Cross’ – the PlayStation joypad revelation that’s caused an outrage

Male hands holding a PS4 controller

Cross over? The Sony PS4 controller at the centre of the controversy. Photograph: George Dolgikh/Alamy

In a week filled with furore and controversy in British politics, do not make the mistake of thinking you can escape to video games for respite. There is outrage brewing here, too, and it concerns the X button on the PlayStation controller.

A fortnight ago, Twitter user @drip133 asked a seemingly innocent question above a photo of the joypad: “Do you say ‘x’ or ‘cross’ button?” There were hundreds of contradictory responses, which became increasingly furious as the week wore on. Some insisted that because the other buttons are named after shapes – Triangle, Square and Circle – logically, the “X” button must be called “Cross”; others pointed out that as ‘X’ was the common usage, this was the only acceptable pronunciation.

The scrap is a rare event in the world of video games as console manufacturers usually name buttons after numbers, unambiguous letters of the alphabet or colours. The groundbreaking Nintendo Entertainment System pad, for example, went with A, B, while the SNES added X and Y (a configuration also used by Sega and Microsoft), and in this context, it’s clear that “X” is X.

The only other major console controller to utilise symbols was the disastrous Apple Bandai Pippen, which featured raised dots on its four main buttons as well as a sequence of buttons on the front of the pad, which in turn featured three shapes: “square”, “circle” and “diamond”. There was little controversy over what to call any of these buttons, however, because a), Apple avoided the contentious “X” symbol and b), no one bought an Apple Bandai Pippin.

Years ago, in an interview with the now defunct video game website 1UP, Sony designer Teiyu Goto explained how the buttons came to be named:

We wanted something simple to remember, which is why we went with icons or symbols, and I came up with the triangle-circle-X-square combination immediately afterward. I gave each symbol a meaning and a colour. The triangle refers to viewpoint; I had it represent one’s head or direction and made it green. Square refers to a piece of paper; I had it represent menus or documents and made it pink. The circle and X represent ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision-making and I made them red and blue respectively.

Sadly, this doesn’t really help because in the quote he has characterised the “X” button with an “X” symbol and who knows whether that was actually him or the journalist who wrote the piece. Also, what is the symbol you put on a piece of paper when voting? Do you call it a cross or an “X”? Surely it’s a matter of opinion?

Crossed wires … the Dualshock.
 Crossed wires … the Dualshock. Photograph: Getty Images

Certainly, in common gamer vernacular the “X” button is very much pronounced as “X” and not ”cross” – it’s quicker to say and the sound of “press X” is smoother and more pleasing than “press cross” with its awkward stuttering repeat of the “s” sound. When you’re trying to shout instructions to a team mate in a fraught online gun battle, you want the instruction to be as brief, seamless and audible as possible and “X” fulfils this role.

As lexicographers know, language is a fluid concept and no meaning or intention is ever immune from common variation and usage. If people want to misuse “literally”they will; if they think “disinterested” is synonymous with “uninterested, they’re wrong, but if you point it out, it will be you who is judged. In this burning dispute, Sony’s intervention is irrelevant because the players have spoken. X means X.