Sunday, July 11, 2021


The last post was discussing the word dfus דפוס - "printing," and how it derives from the Greek typos, meaning "type." At the end, I noted that the verb hidpis הדפיס means (perhaps surprisingly) "to print", not "to type." So today let's look at the Hebrew word meaning "to type."

In Hebrew, hiklid הקליד means "he typed", haklada הקלדה is typing, and mikledet מקלדת means "keyboard." This root קלד, has a more interesting story than I expected.

To understand the background, we should focus on the last of the three words I mentioned above: mikledet. Even if you weren't familiar with the Hebrew word, did you ever wonder why a keyboard is called that? The buttons you press when you type aren't actually "keys"...

But if you think about a similar device upon which you press all your fingers, you might be able to understand the association better. That device is the piano, with its 88 keys. And in fact, long before a keyboard referred to a device for typing on a computer, it was used to describe the set of keys used to play pianos, organs and other similar musical instruments.

The word key originally meant "an instrument for opening locks," as it does today. So how did it come to be used for the levers of the piano?

There are a number of different theories. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions has the following passage in their entry for key:

The musical sense originally was "tone, note" (mid-15c.). In music theory, the sense developed 17c. to "sum of the melodic and harmonic relationships in the tones of a scale," also "melodic and harmonic relationships centering on a given tone." Probably this is based on a translation of Latin clavis "key," used by Guido for "lowest tone of a scale," or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Sense of "mechanism on a musical instrument operated by the player's fingers" is from c. 1500, probably also suggested by uses of clavis. OED says this use "appears to be confined to Eng[lish]." First of organs and pianos, by 1765 of wind instruments; transferred to telegraphy by 1837 and later to typewriters (1876).

We see from here that "key" developed into two different meanings. In addition to the mechanism in musical instruments, it also took another musical meaning: "a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale."

What isn't clear from the Online Etymology Dictionary is if one meaning of key arose from the other. Some say that the earlier meaning, "tone, note" led to the sense of the mechanisms used to play those notes. They also point out that the tone was called a "key" because it opened the scale. The word "keynote" preserves this sense, as it is the first (lowest) note of the scale.

Others say that the two meanings arose independently, and that piano keys were so called because the way they were designed and assembled was similar to a lock and key. For example, this site shows how ancient organs were made by "adapting keys with levers."

Whatever the origin, the meaning stuck, and in English keys in that sense are used to refer the things pressed on both a piano and a typewriter (and keyboard).

As Yaakov Etsion points out in this article, Hebrew was also faced with the question of what to call the keys of a piano. That in itself isn't so remarkable - in Modern Hebrew there were multitudes of words that needed coining. What is uncommon here, is that Hebrew already had a word for keys of musical instruments. When David returned the Ark to Israel, the verse says:

וְדָוִד  וְכׇל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּכֹל עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים׃ 

Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the LORD to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. (Shmuel II 6:5)

The word translated here as "sistrums" (other translations have "rattles" or "coronets") is מנענעים mina'anim. At some point (and without any direct evidence to the contrary), the mina'anea became associated with the keys of the piano and organ. But this was a difficult word to pronounce, and in 1955 the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with an alternate word for keys of the piano: klidim קלידים.

Why this word? Because it was based an archaic word for "keys" - aklida אקלידא. It is found in Talmudic literature, for example in Sanhedrin 113a:

בעי רחמי והבו ליה אקלידא דמטרא

[Elijah] prayed for mercy and they gave him the key (aklida) to rainfall

Of course, Hebrew already had a very common word for key: mafteach מפתח. But by adopting an obscure word instead, there would be no chance that someone might mix up the words for piano keys and house keys.

Klein points out that aklida, an Aramaic word, derives from the Greek kleida, accusative of kleis (= key). Those Greek words have given us a number of words in English, including "clavicle" (literally a "small key", based on the shape of the bone) and perhaps Cleopatra, which may have meant "key to the fatherland." The Latin cognate, clavis (also meaning "key") gave us words like enclave (enclosed, "locked in"), as well as the musical terms clef (parallel to keynote, as we discussed above) and clavichord (a medieval musical instrument, played with a type of keys).

The Academy's recommendation to use klid קליד for "piano key" was widely accepted, although not without opposition. The linguist Yitzchak Avineri wrote in a 1958 column, that while he did not object to adopting foreign words when necessary, this was not the case here, since Hebrew already had a word for piano key, the "biblical" mina'anea (in quotes because I haven't seen any proof that it was anything like a piano.)  Not only did klid have Greek origins (as compared to Semitic ones), even the loan translation was from English, a foreign language that invented the idea that pianos had 88 "keys." He concluded the column by saying that "this is not the way to expand the language."

However, language doesn't always listen to the experts. Klidim became the accepted term for piano keys, and a keyboard - both musical and for typing - is a mikledet. However, this new root did not take over fully. The keys of a piano are klidim, but the keys on a computer keyboard (and typewriter) are makashim מקשים (makash in singular, from the root נקש, "to strike.") And while one is maklid on a keyboard, that verb is reserved for typing. On the piano, one is poret al haklidim פורט על הקלידים (from a Biblical root meaning "to play a musical instrument", as found in Amos 6:5). 

So perhaps Avineri would have some comfort in the fact that at least in some contexts those ancient Hebrew roots persevered.

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