A computer keyboard is a board of keys. Why are these buttons called keys? Is it related to the usage of piano "keys"?

  • 1
    Hi Ross. This is a general reference question. Please do your own reasearch before posting a question here and tell us what you found. Thank you. – Tushar Raj Jul 3 '15 at 6:52

Key meaning (computing) one of several small, usually square buttons on a typewriter or computer keyboard, mostly corresponding to text characters, derives from the keys (mechanisms) of musical instruments according to Etymonline:

  • keyboard:
  • 1819, from key in sense of "mechanism of a musical instrument" + board. Originally of pianos, organs, etc., extended to other machines 1846. The verb is first recorded 1926 (implied in keyboarding).
  • key:
  • Musical sense of "tone, note" is 15c., but modern sense of "scale" is 1580s, probably as a translation of Latin clavis or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Extended c. 1500 to "mechanism on a musical instrument".
| improve this answer | |
  • Key and bolts : Key has been known from texts since the year 1000. Yet dictionaries refuse to say anything definite about its distant origin. - blog.oup.com/2015/03/key-etymology-word-origin – user66974 Jul 3 '15 at 16:02
  • The word clavichord (literally key-string in Latin) was around well before 1500, when etymonline says the word key was extended to mean mechanism on a musical instrument, and this sense was originally just used for keyboard instruments like the clavichord. So rather than this usage deriving from an extension of the use of key for note in English, I suspect it derived from a translation of the Latin word clavis. – Peter Shor Jul 3 '15 at 16:24

In my view key is from French clé/clef and Latin clavis from the verb claudere to close. Clavis was primarily a key to a door. French clé was also used for the parts of a piano that you touch to produce a sound. In analogy used for similar parts of a typewriter. Here "key" is a kind of metaphor for a part that works like a key to a door (for opening and closing) and produces an effect as making a sound or typing a letter.

I would not derive key of a typewriter or a keyboard of a computer from key as a special sign in the notation of music as piano key or bass key. So in Etymonline. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=key&searchmode=none

| improve this answer | |
  • Just to make sure: you are saying that the usage of the word key extended from door-openers to musical instrument mechanisms is a calque on French clé/clef, right? Not that the word key etymologically derives from French clé/clef? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '15 at 9:33
  • Yes, I think key derives from French clé and Latin clavis. I think Etymonline's cautious hint at someting like to cleave is very doubtful. – rogermue Jul 3 '15 at 9:38
  • 3
    So you think clef somehow magically was borrowed into Old English cæg (and Old Frisian kei), with which it shares absolutely nothing phonetically or phonologically except for the initial consonant? That will require an extremely good explanation. There is no certain etymology for the word, but if the surmised relation to the cleaving root is dubious (it is), any development that involves randomly dropping the /l/, changing the vowel, dropping the /f/, and adding a /j/ is completely impossible. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 3 '15 at 9:43
  • I don't think that it is so imposible. If l drops out you have French / ke: / which would become /kei/ . Doris Day sings Que sara as /kei/ and why not /ki:/. The problem is the reduction of /kl/ to something simpler. And I have the impression that /kl/ at the beginning of a word is sometimes reduced. – rogermue Jul 3 '15 at 10:08
  • Greek klinein gives German lehnen and English lean. And I think that to jam is related to German klemmen. I said "I think", I didn't say that I can give a proof. It is my view, but I didn't study the matter. It would be necessary to study Norman-French and for historical studies of Norman-French, Frisian etc I don't have the means. – rogermue Jul 3 '15 at 10:08

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.