Mark Helperin’s article titled “Romney’s Conservative Critics” in Time magazine (September 28) begins with the following sentence:

“On “Morning Joe,” I key off Charles Krauthammer’s column to talk about a key part of Romney’s challenge: “

If you watch conservative media, read Krauthammer, watch Fox, or talk privately with any Republican politician, it’s hard to find anybody, even some people, as you all know, inside the Romney campaign, who think they’re doing the right thing now, that they’re on track to win despite Governor Romney saying that.”

Though I find “key in,” “key on,” “key to,” and “key up,” I cannot find the entry of “key off” in any of Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster dictionary, despite all of them register “off-key” as adjective and verb.

Only wikitionary provides the definition of “key off” as a computing terminology meaning “to take as a controlling input datum.”

What does “key off” somebody’s column exactly mean? Does it mean to pay special attention to something?

What is the currency of “key off” as a verb? Is it popular as “key in (on, to, up), or special to this writer in trying to key “key off” to “key part”? In other word, is this well-received English word?

  • 1
    Here's another discussion: usingenglish.com/forum/ask-teacher/40579-key-off.html Also I don't think this phrase has much currency.
    – Merk
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 21:10
  • 3
    I don't know Mark Helperin, but I must say I think that's a truly awful sentence. I can't see any possible reason why he would want to use the word "key" twice, with such difference meanings, in the same sentence. And given the first usage is so obscure anyway, one can hardly avoid noticing. Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 21:56
  • The Wiktionary definition “to take as a controlling input datum” seems relevant. The data that was taken would be the ideas in the column that was mentioned, which he put into his talk.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 22:43

2 Answers 2


This is a deceptively interesting question. I understood it intuitively to mean the writer was using the Krauthammer column as a topic that would set the tone for or central idea of his own piece. The usage is a familiar one, found often in journalistic pieces such as this headline.

Europe stocks gain, key off U.S. data, earnings

The phrase says a lot in a few letters, rendering it ideal for headlines.

Still, when I went to look up the term in various dictionaries, I came up empty for an exact match. I think the term must be deconstructed before it can be explained. Let's look at the preposition first. I believe it is used in the following sense (all citations from Webster's 3rd New Int'l Dictionary):

2off prep 2 a from the charge or possession of (bought it ~ a wandering peddler) (had his wallet stolen ~ him) b : from as a source of supply : at the expense of (lived ~ the country) (lived ~ his sister)

We see this usage of off in informal English (as a substitute for from), in such constructions as

I promptly bought it off him for 30k gold and gave it to Alieth.
He swaggered away through the crowd, lifted a wallet off a passing bloke ...
He always told me he took it off a dead soldier ...

So, let's suppose the off in "key off" means from. Next, let's look at the verb. This is used in the musical sense, as Affable Geek notes, but here is a dictionary citation that gives its exact definition:

2key vb 2a : to fix or determine the musical pitch of b : to regulate the musical pitch of (~ the strings).

Putting those together we get the sense of "key off" to mean (literally) "fix or determine the musical pitch from" another instrument or voice. I can attest that in orchestras, which I used to play in, this is customarily the principal oboe; in choirs it is a piano or a small reed-based device used for giving a pitch, or a choir member with perfect pitch or good relative pitch. The given pitch is a starting point for in-tune playing and harmonizing.

The literal usage has been overwhelmed by the figurative usage, though. To "key off" has come to mean to take a prompt from something else in order to produce something of one's own. The thing produced may be in concert with the prompt, may echo it or elaborate upon it, or may in some cases even take issue with it.

Finally, whatever @FumbleFingers may feel about the quality of Helperin's sentence

“On “Morning Joe,” I key off Charles Krauthammer’s column to talk about a key part of Romney’s challenge: “

it is fairly obvious that the writer, if he wasn't being merely sloppy, means to decorate his sentence with a play on two meanings of the word key. In keying off Charles Krauthammer's column, Mark Helperin aims to amplify a certain essential feeling of doubt shared by many conservatives with respect to Romney's campaign.

  • Hi.Robsto-san. I can’t be happier to know my post is still on your warm watch from early time I joined the site, and to get profound answers. As I placed a previous comment, I have an impression that “key off,” in short, sounds like 「共感する。共感する」in Japanese, meaning resonate or concur with. Am I off the mark? Commented Sep 29, 2012 at 20:27
  • Oishi-san: Pretty much, yes. Note also that「共感する」has an additional meaning of to respond, if I remember correctly, which is, if you'll pardon the pun, a key part of what "key off" has come to mean. It usually means to respond in concert with someone or something, but it may also use that prompt as a departure point from which to introduce contrasting ideas as well — harmony or counterpoint, take your pick.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 10:50
  • Robusto-san. Thanks for your attention. I was interested in your beginning phrase, ‘This is ‘deceptively’ interesting question. I don’t think I’ve heard ‘deceptively’ being used in this way. What does ‘deceptively’ interesting’ mean? Can I use this phrase in day-to-day conversation? Commented Sep 30, 2012 at 21:18
  • Oishi-san: I just mean that the question seems obvious at first glance, because key off is such a familiar term; it is deceptively interesting, though, because there is more there than meets the eye. What should be obvious is not at all plain and simple. The phrase "deceptively interesting" I used in place of the much more common "deceptively simple" — which means roughly the same thing, and my usage was a play on that one.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 1, 2012 at 1:59

In this instance, it is a version of "to take your cue from." Musically, you are "in the same key" or "singing from the same page." The idea is that you have a common starting point and intend to further develop what another has begun.

The idea that is being conveyed is that one commentator has read some one's column, and is using that as an inspiration or a starting point from which his own contribution is to be added.

All in all, its not the most standard construction, but it is a colloquialism I hear every now and then here in Washington, DC.

  • Interesting idea, but you should provide some reference.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 22:42
  • Isn’t the writer simply means he resonates with Charles Krauthammer’s column by “key off”? Commented Sep 29, 2012 at 1:57

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