Key - quay

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Key and quay form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these. Key and quay are both pronounced 'kee' (IPA: /ki:/).

  • A key is basically (OED's key n.1) the device used to open a lock, or door etc.
  • More figuratively, it is applied to
    • a list, often numbered, explaining details of a picture, etc;
    • originally a term of military art, meaning a position which serves to 'open' an enemy's defences, or, for defenders, "A place which from the strategic advantages of its position gives its possessor control over the passage into or from a certain district, territory, inland sea, etc." (OED); now often applied more figuratively to 'the way into' many things, such as 'unlocking' the secrets of a scientific or mathematical problem, or a particular patient's problems, etc;
    • in music, the particular 'key signature' of a piece - that is, the scale, or system of notes depending on the dominant note, in which a particular piece is to be played;
      • it is also used as the name of each 'note' on a piano, etc - the white or black levers which are struck to make a note sound. Hence keyboard instruments;
      • similar devices for making correct notes in wind instruments, and later in telegraph and radio devices for sending code over wires.
  • A key is also (OED's key n.3) a variant spelling of the word spelled often as 'cay' , 'a reef', a 'sandbank', 'a low-lying island'. The original Spanish word was cayo: it is usually spelled key in such USA locations as the Florida Keys (including Key West and Key Largo - the latter also the name of a much-praised film by John Huston starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor. It was made in 1948, and is classed as a noir.)
  • key n.2 is another variant spelling of quay, which oddly enough shares its derivation with that of OED's key n.3 above. The Spanish cayo ('shoal', 'reef', 'low-lying island') is cognate with the Old French kay, kai or cay. The Old French was modernized to quai (pronounced 'kay', /ke:/). It was this spelling that became the standard English quay for the artificial constructions imitating sandbanks and so on at which ships were loaded. Nowadays, they do not resemble natural cayos at all, usually being made of stone, and always having substantial vertical faces to enable the ships to abut the land.