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The meaning and origin of the expression: Criss-cross


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Criss-cross'?

'Criss-cross' refers to a pattern of intersecting lines, either two lines or many.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Criss-cross'?

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Criss-cross'.We need to thank the illiteracy of medieval English peasants for the expression 'criss-cross'.

It's a stock scene in historical costume dramas that, when an uneducated characters need to sign something, they resort to 'making their mark', that is, signing with a cross. This is usually shown as being done with an x. In reality, people who couldn't write their name would have signed with a character more like a plus +.

What those people were indicating is that they were Christian - the mark they were making was 'Christ's cross'.

This is recorded in 1440 in the Middle English text Memorials St. Edmund's Abbey:

This privilege conferme in al thyng, and with myn hond make a subscripcioun of Cristes cros ✠ for confirmacioun.

The Italians also used the ✠ character, called by them a letterina, as recorded in John Florio's, A Worlde of Wordes... Dictionarie in Italian and English, 1598:

Lettérina, a little letter, scrole, writing, bill or epistle, a little letter of the crisse-crosse rowe.

Criss-cross, with various spellings, continued to be used as the name of the character in English but from the 17th century onward it was also used as a generic term for any crossing lines. That's recorded in Thomas Freeman's book of epigrams Rubbe, and a Great Cast, 1614:

As when she was but sixteene, and no more,
That in her Chamber hangs to open view;
To all that come, that portrature she showes,
And sighs she is not what she was whilere,
This surrow'd face so full of Cris. crosse rowes,
Was once (quoth she) such as you see it there

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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