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key1 / / • n. (pl. keys ) 1. a small piece of shaped metal with incisions cut to fit the wards of a particular lock, and that is inserted into a lock and turned to open or close it. ∎  a similar implement for operating a switch in the form of a lock, esp. one operating the ignition of a motor vehicle. ∎ short for key card. ∎  an instrument for grasping and turning a screw, peg, or nut, esp. one for winding a clock or turning a valve. ∎  a pin, bolt, or wedge inserted between other pieces, or fitting into a hole or space designed for it, so as to lock parts together. 2. one of several buttons on a panel for operating a typewriter, word processor, or computer terminal. ∎  a lever depressed by the finger in playing an instrument such as the organ, piano, flute, or concertina. ∎  a lever operating a mechanical device for making or breaking an electric circuit, for example, in telegraphy. 3. a thing that provides a means of gaining access to or understanding something: the key to Jack’s behavior may lie submerged in his unhappy past. ∎  an explanatory list of symbols used in a map, table, etc. ∎  a set of answers to exercises or problems. ∎  a word or system for solving a cipher or code. ∎  the first move in the solution of a chess problem. ∎  Comput. a field in a record that is used to identify that record uniquely. 4. Mus. a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale, regarded as forming the tonal basis of a piece or passage of music: the key of E minor. ∎  the tone or pitch of someone's voice: his voice had changed to a lower key. 5. the dry winged fruit of an ash, maple, or sycamore maple, typically growing in bunches; a samara. 6. Basketball the keyhole-shaped area marked on the court near each basket, comprising the free-throw circle and the foul line. • adj. of paramount or crucial importance: she became a key figure in the suffragette movement. • v. (keys, keyed / kēd/ ) [tr.] 1. enter or operate on (data) by means of a computer keyboard: she keyed in a series of commands | [intr.] a hacker caused considerable disruption after keying into a vital database. 2. [tr.] (usu. be keyed) fasten (something) in position with a pin, wedge, or bolt: the coils may be keyed into the slots by fiber wedges. ∎  (key something to) make something fit in with or be linked to: this optimism is keyed to the possibility that the U.S. might lead in the research field. ∎  (key someone/something into/in with) cause someone or something to be in harmony with: to those who are keyed into his lunatic sense of humor, the arrival of any Bergman movie is a major comic event. 3. word (an advertisement in a particular periodical), typically by varying the form of the address given, so as to identify the publication generating particular responses. 4. inf. be the crucial factor in achieving: Ewing keyed a 73–35 advantage on the boards with twenty rebounds. 5. [tr.] vandalize a car by scraping the paint from it with a key: somebody could key your car and not get punished. PHRASES: in (or out of) key in (or out of) harmony: this vaguely uplifting conclusion is out of key with the body of his book.PHRASAL VERBS: key someone up (usu. be keyed up) make someone nervous, tense, or excited, esp. before an important event.DERIVATIVES: keyed adj.key·er n.key·less adj.key2 • n. a low-lying island or reef, esp. in the Caribbean. Compare with cay.

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KEYS . Doors held shut with bars, and bars and bolts, were common long before locks and keys became prevalent. Some of the oldest myths reflect this. In Babylonian mythology, for example, Marduk makes gates to the heavens and secures them with bolts. Many later divinities in the ancient world were both guardians of closed doors and bearers of keys.

The possession of keys usually signified power over regions guarded by the locks that the keys could open or close. The regions in question were often the underworld or places of the afterlifefor example, the realm of Hades, the Abyss in the Book of Revelation, and the Mandaean "dark worlds" that had locks and keys different from all others. The keeper of keys was charged not only with guarding the passage as human beings went from this world to the next but also with keeping the dead where they belonged. A Babylonian funerary chant entreats the gatekeeper of the underworld to keep close watch over the dead, lest they return.

The locked realm can also be this earth, the seas, or even the cosmos itself. In Greek mythology Cybele holds the key to Earth, shutting her up in winter and opening her again in the spring. Similarly, Janus opens the door of the sky and releases the dawn. In Mesopotamian myth, Ninib guards the lock of heaven and earth and opens the deep, while Ea unlocks fountains. The Egyptian Serapis has keys to the earth and sea. In Breton folklore menhirs are the keys to the sea and also the keys to hell; if they were turned in their locks and the locks should open, the sea would rush in.

Because in the ancient world many divinities were key bearers, their priestesses bore keys signifying that the divine powers belonged to them as well, or that they were guardians of the sanctuaries of the gods. Priestesses were represented carrying on their shoulders large rectangular keys. A key pictured on a gravestone indicated the burial place of a priestess.

There is a morphological relationship between the key and the nem ankh sign, where the anserated cross of the Egyptian gods is carried by its top as if it were a key, especially in ceremonies for the dead. Here the cross, playing the role of the key, opens the gates of death onto immortality.

Keys also symbolize a task to be performed and the means of performing it. In the Hebrew scriptures the accession to kingly power occurred through "laying the key of the House of David upon [his] shoulders" (Is. 22:22). For ancient Jewish and some non-Jewish royalty, the passing on of keys was a natural symbol for the transfer of the monarch's task and the power to accomplish it.

The key symbolizes initiation into the mysteries of the cult. In Mithraic rites the lion-headed figure who is central to the ceremony holds in his hands two keys. It is possible that they function in the same way as the two "keys of the kingdom" held by Saint Peter in Christianity: One represents excommunication whereby the door is locked against the unworthy soul, while the other represents absolution whereby the door is opened and the initiate achieves salvation.


Information about the symbolism of keys can be found in various primary sources. J. A. MacCulloch's "Locks and Keys," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 8 (Edinburgh, 1915), contains material covering the development of locks, locks and bolts, and keys as mechanical contrivances as well as symbols. Franz Cumont in The Mysteries of Mithra, 2d ed., translated by Thomas J. McCormack (New York, 1910), and Robert C. Zaehner in Zurvan: A Zoroastrian Dilemma (Oxford, 1955) both discuss at length the initiation rites of Mithraism and speculate about the keys of the lion-headed god.

New Sources

Lurker, Manfred. "Schlüssel." In Wörterbuch der Symbolik. Stuttgart, Germany, 1983, p. 603.

Ortner, S. B. "On Key Symbols." The American Anthropologist 75 (1973).

Elaine Magalis (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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key:1 In music, term used to indicate the scale from which the tonal material of a given composition is derived. To say, for example, that a composition is in the key of C major means that it uses as its basic tonal material the tones of that scale which is associated with C major, and that its harmony employs the chords built on the tones of that scale. C is then the keynote, and the C major triad, or the notes CEG, the tonic chord of the composition. In addition to the seven tones of the C major scale, however, the remaining five tones of the chromatic scale may appear as auxiliary tones, and chords may be borrowed from other keys. Modulation to another key may take place, but if there is a return to the original key the whole composition is said to be in the key of C. At the beginning of a composition, its key is usually indicated by a key signature (see musical notation). A term usually used synonymously with key is tonality. Absence of a feeling of key is called atonality. The concept of keynotes was developed gradually during the 16th and 17th cent. and its partial or total abandonment was a feature of the modernism of the early and mid-20th cent. Polytonality, the employment of two or more keys simultaneously, has been used by some 20th-century composers. 2 Also in music, in reference to musical instruments the term key refers to a lever depressed by the player's finger or, in the case of the pedal keyboard of the organ, the foot. In woodwind instruments the keys control covers on the holes that shorten the vibrating column of air. In brass winds they control the valves that lower the pitch of the instrument by lengthening the tube.

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1. As a principle in mus. comp., implies adherence, in any passage, to the note-material of one of the major or minor scales (see scale)—not necessarily a rigid adherence (since other notes may incidentally appear), but a general adherence, with a recognition of the tonic (or key-note) of the scale in question as a principal and governing factor in its effect. For instance we speak of a passage as being ‘in the key of’ C major, or F minor, and also use the same terms to describe a comp. (or movement) as a whole—in this latter case implying merely that the key mentioned is that in which the piece begins and sometimes but not always (e.g. Mahler) ends and is its governing one (see modulation). If a piece in several movements is so spoken of it does not necessarily mean more than that the first movement (usually also the last one) is in that key.

The element of key crept into European mus. in the early 17th cent., as the modes gradually fell out of use: it remained of supreme importance to the end of the 19th cent. but in the 20th cent., many composers, led by Schoenberg, have abandoned tonality. See atonal.

2. A lever on an instr. which is depressed by finger or foot to produce a note, e.g. on a pf. by finger, on an org. by foot, on woodwind by finger (the levers covering the airholes).

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keyabsentee, addressee, adoptee, agree, allottee, amputee, appellee, appointee, appraisee, après-ski, assignee, attendee, bailee, bain-marie, Bangui, bargee, bawbee, be, Bea, bee, bootee, bouquet garni, bourgeoisie, Brie, BSc, buckshee, Capri, cc, chimpanzee, cohabitee, conferee, consignee, consultee, Cree, debauchee, decree, dedicatee, Dee, degree, deportee, dernier cri, detainee, devisee, devotee, divorcee, draftee, dree, Dundee, dungaree, eau-de-vie, emcee, employee, endorsee, en famille, ennui, enrollee, escapee, esprit, evacuee, examinee, expellee, fee, fiddle-de-dee, flea, flee, fleur-de-lis, foresee, franchisee, free, fusee (US fuzee), Gardaí, garnishee, gee, ghee, glee, goatee, grandee, Grand Prix, grantee, Guarani, guarantee, he, indictee, inductee, internee, interviewee, invitee, jamboree, Jaycee, jeu d'esprit, key, knee, Lea, lee, legatee, Leigh, lessee, Ley, licensee, loanee, lychee, manatee, Manichee, maquis, Marie, marquee, me, Midi, mortgagee, MSc, nominee, obligee, Otomi, parolee, Parsee, parti pris, patentee, Pawnee, payee, pea, pee, permittee, plc, plea, pledgee, pollee, presentee, promisee, quay, ratatouille, referee, refugee, releasee, repartee, retiree, returnee, rupee, scot-free, scree, sea, secondee, see, settee, Shanxi, Shawnee, shchi, she, shea, si, sirree, ski, spree, standee, suttee, tant pis, tea, tee, tee-hee, Tennessee, testee, the, thee, three, thuggee, Tiree, Torquay, trainee, Tralee, transferee, tree, Trincomalee, trustee, tutee, twee, Twi, undersea, vestee, vis-à-vis, wagon-lit, Waikiki, warrantee, we, wee, whee, whoopee, ye, yippee, Zuider Zee

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KeysAchinese, Ambonese, appease, Assamese, Balinese, Belize, Beninese, Bernese, bêtise, Bhutanese, breeze, Burmese, Cantonese, Castries, cerise, cheese, chemise, Chinese, Cingalese, Cleese, Congolese, Denise, Dodecanese, ease, éminence grise, expertise, Faroese, freeze, Fries, frieze, Gabonese, Genoese, Goanese, Guyanese, he's, Japanese, Javanese, jeez, journalese, Kanarese, Keys, Lebanese, lees, legalese, Louise, Macanese, Madurese, Maltese, marquise, Milanese, Nepalese, Nipponese, officialese, overseas, pease, Pekinese, Peloponnese, Piedmontese, please, Portuguese, Pyrenees, reprise, Rwandese, seise, seize, Senegalese, she's, Siamese, Sienese, Sikkimese, Sinhalese, sleaze, sneeze, squeeze, Stockton-on-Tees, Sudanese, Sundanese, Surinamese, Tabriz, Taiwanese, tease, Tees, telegraphese, these, Timorese, Togolese, trapeze, valise, Viennese, Vietnamese, vocalese, wheeze •superficies • Héloïse • Averroës •rabies • pubes • Maccabees •headcheese

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1. A value used to identify a member of a set. Usually the elements of the set are records (n-tuples), in which one of the fields holds the key. Variations allow multiple key fields or any field to be used as a key.

2. A value used to establish authority to access particular information. See locks and keys.

3. A value used as a basis for encryption. See cryptography.

4. See keyboard.

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key a key (representing one's own key to a house) is often used as a symbol on a coming-of-age card.

Keys are the emblem of St Peter (see Peter1), St Petronilla, an early Roman martyr whose fictional legend makes her the daughter of St Peter, St Martha, and St Zita, a 13th-century Luccan serving-maid.

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key (identification key) A means of identifying a specimen organism by selecting from a series of choices relating to external features. Each stage in the key presents several character descriptions (two in a dichotomous key); each description is followed by a direction to another stage in the key. Selection of the character that matches the specimen leads to another stage, with another two choices, and so on until the specimen is identified.

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key In music, term used to indicate tonality in a composition, based on one of the major or minor scales. The key of a piece of music is indicated by the key signature at the left hand end of the stave. The key of a passage may, however, change by the addition of accidentals before prescribed notes; a change of key is known as a modulation.