I received a question whether I was going to write about the word key in the series on our habitat. I didn’t have such an intention, but, since someone is interested in this matter, I’ll gladly change my plans and satisfy the curiosity of our friend. A detailed and highly technical entry on key can be found in my introduction to an etymological dictionary of English, and in this blog, I usually try not to repeat the information given elsewhere in my published works. But in the present case, I have an excuse. My dictionary can be found in many college libraries, but despite the presence of some risky words in its text and the many shadows it casts it is unable to compete (as regards sales and its appeal to the film industry) with Fifty Shades of Grey. Since, presumably, neither our correspondent nor most of our readers have seen the dictionary, I will briefly discuss the history of key as I understand it. Moreover, I will devote a follow-up post to latches. It would be nice to call the forthcoming miniseries “Nuts and Bolts,” but all I can offer is “Keys and Bolts from an Etymological Point of View.”
Key has been known from texts since the year 1000. Yet dictionaries refuse to say anything definite about its distant origin. The reason for specialists’ extreme caution is not far to seek. In most cases, a word for key means “opener” or “closer” (in the remote past, different tools were sometimes used for locking and unlocking the door), but key cannot be associated with any word meaning “open” or “close.” Desperate attempts to derive key from Latin clavis “key” by eliminating l (claudo means “shut, close”) were obviously doomed to failure. However, they did not lose their attraction even in the second half of the nineteenth century. Equally futile were the references to Engl. quay (from French, from Celtic) and to Welsh cau “close; clasp, etc.” Several unpromising hypotheses should not delay us here. A serious complication consists in the fact that key lacks indubitable cognates except kaei “key” in Frisian (the old forms and numerous variants in Frisian dialects have also been recorded), for in the absence of related words it is usually impossible to draw any conclusions in etymology.
However, one can be fairly certain that the etymon that yielded Engl. key sounded as *kaigjo– (j stands for what would be y in Modern English), and this form excludes many tempting comparisons, because the only solid basis in our search is phonetics. German and Dutch scholars have more than once tried to connect Engl. key and German Kegel “skittle, ninepin,” but the match is unsatisfactory; consequently, this path leads nowhere. Kegel and most other words that have been used in the hope to shed light on the derivation of key have another flaw: their origin is equally debatable and sometimes unknown. I have often referred to the rule of thumb that should be applied to etymology (although it is of my own devising, its strict application guarantees success): never use an obscure word to explain another word whose history is obscure. I am unaware of a single example in which those who juggled with several opaque forms arrived at viable results. Another rule I always use may appear too vague and even unfair, but it too is useful: “The more convoluted an explanation is, the greater the chance that it is wrong.” Several conjectures concerning the etymology of key by eminent researchers are so involved that their uselessness could be predicted.
Now is the time to provide a clue to key. In addition to the noun key, English has the adjective key “twisted,” as in key–legged “knock-kneed, crooked,” at present known only in northern British dialects, and even there sometimes obsolescent. The verb key means “to twist, to bend.” Those regional words seem to have come to English from Scandinavian. In Swedish dialects, kaja “left hand” occurs. It is allied to Danish regional kei “left-hand”; in the Danish Standard, the corresponding adjective is kejtet. Old Icelandic keikja “bend back” belongs here too. The left side is often looked upon as weak and deficient. “Left” interpreted as “bent, twisted, crooked” is a common occurrence.
The most primitive keys, when they were keys rather than bars, had bits. In many languages, the root of the word for “key” means “curvature.” Wattle doors of the ancient speakers of Germanic had openings in the front wall. They were not real doors and did not need elaborate locks. Their function was to keep the cattle from entering some quarters rather than saving the house from burglars. Laws against thieves were severe. I believe that Engl. key, both the noun and the adjective, goes back to the same source and belongs with the Scandinavian words cited above. Key, it appears, designated a stick, a pin, or a peg with a twisted end. It must have been a northern word from the start. The modern pronunciation of key (unpredictably, key rhymes with see, rather than say) may be of northern origin as well.
Before the Scandinavian noun was borrowed, Old English, quite naturally, had a native word for “key.” It was scyttel ~ scyttels, allied to the verb sceotan “to shoot.” Its disappearance may have been due to the noun’s broad range of senses: scyttel also meant “dart, arrow, missile” (that is, anything that could be shot). However, its modern reflex is shuttle! The Old Frisian word was probably likewise a loan from Scandinavian. Perhaps the borrowing happened at the epoch vaguely referred to as Anglo-Frisian. The Old English form of the word key behaved in a strange way; it could be masculine or feminine, and it vacillated between the so-called strong and weak declensions. All this might be the consequence of the fact that key was a guest in the language and people were not quite sure of its grammatical categories. For the sake of historical justice I should add that E. Magnusen almost guessed the source of key as early as 1882, but he was led astray by his idea that key is a congener of akimbo.
If my reconstruction is correct, the word came to English very early, and one wonders why it did not turn up in texts before the year 1000. Possibly, key was first known only in the north and spread to southern dialects much later. Even if both English and Frisian borrowed the word from their northern neighbors, its source in English was hardly Frisian; a Frisian loan would have taken less time to reach Wessex, whose dialect of Old English we know especially well.
But why was the word borrowed? Probably the Scandinavians had keys whose construction differed from those the Angles and Northumbrians used. Here we enter the sphere of “Words and Things,” an indispensable field for the etymologist, but we don’t know enough about the keys of medieval England to offer an intelligent guess. I find my view of key fairly reasonable. So far, it has met with neither approval nor disapproval, but the wheels of etymological lexicography grind slowly, and I have nowhere to hurry.
Key in place names like Key West is an entirely different word. It is an adaptation of Spanish cayo “shoal, rock, etc.”