Last Night I Dreamt About The Word “Key”

Keys filled the skies, and fell like hail. Big ones, little ones; the kind that don’t open doors, too. Surprising how many different types there are.

When I woke, I went to my dictionaries: two Concise Oxfords, one from the early Forties and one from the mid-Fifties. This is how I do my initial triangulation of words, with one in each hand like a gunfighter. One is part of my mother’s old college paraphrenalia(!); one is the thrift-store find of an old roommate of mine who got tired of signing his name on books and so just started to write down “Jubba Jubba” on everything he owned. So, I guess you all know my email passwords now…

Back when I had a sister-in-law, I gave her my copy of Fowler’s as a Christmas present…if we still enjoy each other’s company today, I like to think it’s because that was a book we bonded over…

…Also, I recently picked up a book put out by the Italian Trade Commission in 1992, called “Columbus Menu”, by someone named Stefano Millioni…and according to my Theory Of The Periodic Table Of Books, one of you (probably RAB) will know who he is…the book is about the immediate post-Columbian diet in Italy, the halting steps toward what we now think of as classic Italian recipes, my God what would they do with all those Peruvian wild tomatoes, those green beans, that squash and those potatoes…growing up in North America, I guess I sort of osmotically understood Columbus was an important figure in European history for reasons of trade, but I confess when I see that category on Jeopardy I naturally go to the “Marco Polo” place…

I’m an idiot. Forget geopolitics: we’re talking about green beans and the holy tomatl. And by the way I would love it if someone (probably RAB) knew what in the hell was the deal with the tomato-racism in Europe. They were okay with the potato. What happened. My best guess: kidnapped girls from South America found high court placements. It’s a bit like the (obvious) idea that a lot of French people are just as much full of “Metis blood” as the girls of my acquaintance like to call it, than are those girls themselves…

…Which must mean there’s whole lot of French people who tan well, and are robustly good-looking.

But let’s get on with the show: also I have on my current reading pile “Hollywood” by Gore Vidal — I am just starting to read Vidal, this is actually head-and-shoulders above “Burr” in terms of prose, it’s tremendously impressive…

And something called “Abalone Summer”, a kid’s book about a boy and a girl who discover an Abalone-smuggling ring working out of the Skeena River…

(Out of the Skeena? Really? Shows how much I know…)

…That unfortunately derails the kid’s book I was going to write about a cross-border geoduck-smuggling ring, a plucky girl, and a handsome-if-somewhat-dimwitted Mountie whose boss is always yelling at him…

Well, you should read two kid’s adventure books a year, I figure: one in the summer and one in the winter…

And, greatest thing of all, I should email Prof and Gorj…Jack B. sent me a copy of his famous “Jujitsu For Christ”. And let me say just this: IS IT GOOD. This isn’t me being polite, it really is that good. Bloody beautifully natural stuff. Jack isn’t reading this, so I can say it: it’s an accomplishment and a half. He told me he wrote a cookbook. By God, I intend to track that fucker down. No joke. Jack Butler, people.

But seriously, people: etymology of the word “key”, please? I just cannot figure out how that word starts. Both barrels of my dictionaries say that the origin in OE (or was it ME?) is obscure. I have a theory that the word begins with the dry-stacking of stone fences…possibly earlier with some sort of oyster garden, in the old hunter-gatherer days. IT DIDN’T START WITH DOORS OR PIANOS, or even cut wedges of wood. Which makes me think it must be VERY old.

Okay, proposal, Bloggers: go procure and then read “John McNab” by John Buchan. It’s been too long since I read it anyway, and I need an excuse to do it again. I swear on my first reading of it I thought “John Buchan” was a nom de plume for Spike Milligan. I suppose this is only for the British folks: I read it because this peculiar fellow was Canada’s 15th Governor-General, and also because of the 39 steps…I’ve since read just about every Buchan book in existence…I even read his grandson’s (quite entertaining, I thought) book about Enlightenment Edinburgh, called “Crowded With Genius”. Well, that and it’s a special subject of mine I picked up in school…

But it was good!

Someone once said of ol’ Johnny that he had “a delusively simple prose style”. I think that’s fair, for the “inventor of the modern thriller”…but, I have a couple of thoughts about him as well, that aren’t so straightforward…and let me just say, to establish my bona fides, I’ve read the guy’s autobiography too. What a strange man he was, a yet a man so much of his time…

And yet a very unusual man too, and I’ll tell you why next post.

For now, suddenly I’ve recalled an engagement.

More book talk later.

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7 responses to “Last Night I Dreamt About The Word “Key”

  1. The complete unabridged OED says that “key” comes from Old English and is also found in Old Frisian – the earliest example of its use is in Riddles, written around 1000 CE. But apparently the word is “not found in the other Teutonic languages; ulterior etymology unknown”.
    Also, it was originally pronounced like “kay” instead of “kee” – this was the standard pronunciation until probably the early 18th century. Dryden repeatedly rhymes “key” with “way” in poetry as late as 1700. The modern “kee” pronunciation apparently came into general English via Scots influence, but the OED isn’t sure exactly how. (The Scots were pretty darn influential throughout the 1700s though, weren’t they? There are an awful lot of notable Scottish scientists, philosophers, economists, etc from that period, right?)

    So anyhow – “key” is definitely an old word! “Ulterior etymology unknown”… mysterious…

  2. Thanks, Thoapsl…if that is your real name…

    And indeed the Scots were. I should know: I read Ferguson, Hume, and Smith extensively in university…very intelligent people, those guys. Quite the chore to read, as well.

    And thanks so much, by the way! I wonder that I never realized it was such a GODDAMN peculiar word before this…I mean, “kay”…

    One almost senses a meaning in there, right in there. “Kay”.

    Noun? Adjective? One imagines it could be a salutation: “kay”, meaning “well done”.

    “Well-placed”?

    “Key”?

    As far as I know, it’s impossible that the word “okay” could’ve come down to us (as it were) Teutonically…and yet English is a very weird language, sometimes the same words are…can I say, “multi-source-ant”? I don’t know the proper word (HOLLL-LEE!) And so much of the Germanic inflows to English are just lost…

    I want to say it’s possible that “okay” and “key” are related terms. This is probably the very definition of a pipe-dream though.

  3. No worries. I realised only a week ago that I had access to the unabridged OED online via my university’s library, and it’s a wonderful resource to exploit…

    The OED reckons that OK has a strange origin, too – it supposedly comes from a joke in 1839 USA pop culture, where “O.K.” stood for “Oll Korrect” (i.e. a jokey misspelling of “all correct”). But as soon as someone recorded this as the official origin of “OK”, a dozen other origins popped up: it was also originally “Out of Kash”, or “Oll Koming”, or it came from a native Choctaw word “oke” (or “okii” or “okeh”), or from the French “au quai”, or from Scots (there they are again!) “och aye”, or from some West African Wolof word (via Southern US slaves)… but “Oll Korrect” is the origin with the oldest and best-documented proof.

    Multi-source-ant, indeed! I guess, possibly: the easier it is for people to imagine a plausible origin for a word, the more likely it is that people will find that new word acceptable & reasonable & worthy, right? Folk etymologies are meaningful even when they’re “wrong”, because it’s the folk who make the meaning.

  4. I have never heard of “Jujitsu for Christ,” but now I must read it. I’m sure it will be a fascinating text in Judo-Christian theology.

  5. Very funny, Harvey…

    And Thoapsl, thanks so much! “Och aye”, of course

    Not that I’m really saying “okay” must be connected to “key”, but what a great story could be made out of it if it were, eh? For example, one amusing thought that occurs to me: if “key” were somehow related to “eye”…as in the hole the key-stone goes into is the eye. Obviously that would be bound to be just a little linguistic fantasy, I’d be shocked if there was any possibility those two words could be related…

    …And yet there are the “eyes” that buttons go through, there are eyelets, there’s even the two things you need to be secure in Go…

    …But it’s impossible, of course. Still, what a story it’d make! Because right there in front of us we have the “looking through the keyhole” thing…

    The way we get “keys” on a typewriter’s just as interesting to me…was talking with a friend about this yesterday, as it turns out there are LOTS of completely fucked-in-the-head ways in which one can imagine that word coming to stand for those devices…

  6. hey plok! Glad to know you enjoyed JJC! Spread the word! I think you’d enjoy all of JB’s books, but I have a feeling that Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock might also be right up your alley.

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