There’s a reason why they call them keys

keyboardIf you’re reading this on your computer they’re right below the screen. If you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet, they may not be immediately there, but doubtless there is a way to get them to pop up.

It’s the keys.

I researched why they are called keys and mostly found circular answers like “They’re called keys because they’re those little buttons that fill up a keyboard.” Those “who’s on first” answers did little to solve the question. Indeed, there seems to be no definitive answer, some suggesting it came from the Latin and French languages. Apparently, no one knows for sure, at least no one I could find.

When I hear the word key I immediately think of a longish metal pin with little saw teeth cut into it so that it will fit into a lock and somehow manage to trip tumblers that unlock the lock and open the door or window or box or whatever.

So here’s what I think. After all if there is no recognized authority, no dictionary, no encyclopedia that holds the definitive answer, let’s gather one from those suggested ones.

Among the common meanings, Wikipedia lists:

  • Key (lock), device used to open a lock such as in a door
  • Key, a guide to colors and symbols used in a data chart, graph,      plot or diagram
  • Key, a piece of information that controls the operation of a cryptography      algorithm
  • Key (engineering), a type of coupling used to transmit rotation      between a shaft and an attached item
  • Key (map), a guide to a map’s symbology

All of those apply to this article but none of them in its normally focused intention. I think the buttons with letters, numbers, and other symbols on them scattered about a keyboard are called keys because they do these for us.

They unlock things. They are used by intelligent and insightful people to open up ideas, concepts, opinions, perspectives, and vistas we’ve not thought of, heard of, or seen before. Indeed, as much as what we read is the result of someone pressing on a key, what we write does the same for everyone else. Last week I sat on a roof top terrace with a group of educators and doctoral candidates. The subject came up of my latest book, I am so subtle J, and I remarked that one limited perspective I very often see in aspiring writers is that they think no one is interested in their story. However, I added that a person’s story is ordinary to only themselves. To others it is exotic, different, unusual, and here’s the payoff, interesting. But others will never know it if it is not somehow revealed to them. That is, pardon the pun, the key. Those letters, numbers, and symbols unlock your story, your ideas, your perspectives, your opinions, your experiences. And that is critical to the advancement of understanding.

Second, keys are a guide to understanding. Like I am doing in this article, they explain what you mean. Language, like life, is not static. It is dynamic and words develop new emphases and new meanings over time. It is through the avenue of communication, very often done these days through keys on keyboards, physical and virtual, that expressions are presented. They explain not only what you see and say, but why. They go deeper than the surface and reveal how your ideas actually came about.

Third, keys are a piece of information that controls something else. They do far more than inform. They often inflame. Emotions are stirred, ideas take shape, plans are provoked. The key that sits in the lower left of my keyboard is labeled Ctrl which means control. On Apple computers it’s the Command key. Either way they cause one key or combination of keys to do something. Ctrl B will make letters bold. Ctrl U underlines highlighted text. But I am suggesting that the keys upon which you and I tap have consequential power because they provoke others to action.

Fourth, it transfers energy from the source to whatever it is connected to. Taking the meaning from thekey shaft world of mechanics and engineering, a key is a metal bar, usually square of rectangular in shape and of varying lengths, that fits into a slot in a shaft turned by a motor which fits into a gear or pulley which is turned by the motor.  The keys you and I press form into words that transfer our motivations to others.

Fifth, keys provide a guide. On maps there is usually a key that reveals what symbols mean. The words formed by keys on a keyboard offer advice, good and bad, wise and foolish, simple and profound. The New Testament contains a caution that life and death are in the power of the tongue. Communication is done these days as much through keys and keyboards as it is through words and speaking.

How many keys do you press every day? As of right here, I have pressed 4,597 keys in this article alone. In my newest book, Shadows at Moonrise Bay (set on St. Croix and reveals the story of past misdeeds long hidden and consequences come calling – see how easily I slipped in that bit of shameless self-promotion), I tapped no less than 314,581 keys.

How powerful your words are! Those innocent taps do so much more than you think.



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