If you’re much of a Scrabble player, you know that two-letter words are the real base currency of the realm. Seven-letter words are the brass ring, but you often make them – and many other words – by playing a word alongside another word and making two-letter words in the process, adding points to boot. And you know there are some two-letter words that you never, ever use in real life but that save your bacon in Scrabble. Words like qi (not your IQ in a mirror; a Chinese loan word for a life force) and xu.
Xu. That’s a real shiny penny, isn’t it? Do you even know how to say it? Can you guess? Any idea where it comes from?
You might know that it’s one of the many currency names that have been granted automatic membership in English. When we speak of foreign currency, we have to use the name for the currency, but it’s not a proper noun. So words like peso and lira and rupee and baht get into English on diplomatic visas and have immunity from prosecution (by which I mean they survive dictionary challenges). Also in that gang of UN delegates: xu.
And how do you say it? In English, I mean. I had thought perhaps in line with “shoe,” since I was thinking of how it would be pronounced as a Chinese word, where the x is sort of like the ch in German ich, a voiceless alveopalatal fricative. I knew it would not be like “zoo,” which would be in line with English treatment of x in Greek loans. But, although the Vietnamese x is pretty much like the Chinese x, the English pronunciation of this word is /su:/. Rather like the French word sou, which means “penny”.
Oh, yes. What is a xu worth? Well, I should say was, since the xu-makers have stopped making xus. The main currency in Viet Nam is the dong. It used to be divided into 10 hao, and each hao was divided into 10 xu – so a xu is 1/100 of a dong. They stopped making the xu and the hao in the 1980s. But you can still use the words in Scrabble. It seems that diplomatic passport has eternal currency – which is good because, though xu may be an underling in its office, it is very useful to us here.
Ah, yes, these excellent exotics. That eye-catching x, matched with the unexpected u (I mean, if it were qu, OK, they go together, and we have mu and nu too thanks to the Greeks, but while we have exude and exult and so on, we just don’t start words with xu – or make whole words with it… except we do in Scrabble). So charmingly foreign and utterly un-European. It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering a bowl of pho.
Say, did you know that pho, that classic Vietnamese soup, has been around for only about a century, and the name is thought to come from French pot-au-feu? The Vietnamese word pho is said pretty much like French feu. Seriously! You know, the French were colonial overlords of Viet Nam for some time, and they had their influence.
So anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The sou. Oh, sorry, the xu. The exotic xu. Which – have you guessed it yet? – is really sou in Vietnamese dress.
Yup. It’s a French word, a coin of another realm, borrowed into Vietnamese and respelled accordingly. And here it is, no longer employed by its adopted country, now eking its existence in Scrabble games. Where it can be very valuable indeed.