Q: It seems as if the word “key” has been increasingly used as a shortcut to indicate a crucial element when the speaker or writer can’t (or is too lazy to) identify a more specific modifier. This often results in an annoying phrase like “something was KEY.” Am I being too picky?
A: I’m glad to know that I’m not the only person out there who’s annoyed by the use of “key” as a stand-alone adjective (or predicate adjective), as in “the time frame is key.” But this usage is not exactly new and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.
“Key” has a long and interesting history. As a noun for the device used in a lock, it goes back to about the year 1000 (it used to be pronounced “kay”).
As an adjective, now long obscure, “key” (or “kay”) meant “left,” so someone who was “kay-fisted” or “key-pawed” was left-handed, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In the 1990s, “key” acquired a new notoriety—as a verb meaning to vandalize a car by scratching it with a key. (As a matter of fact, our Subaru wagon was “keyed” and I can show you the scratch mark to prove it!)
The noun “key” has been used metaphorically from the very beginning. The word passed into use as an adjective meaning important in the early 20th century. The OED cites published references to “key fact,” “key industries,” “key offices,” and “key position” in the teens and twenties.
Not until the early 1970s did “key” appear as a predicate adjective (“Two ideas were key” … “this is what’s key”). The usage has now been around for more than three decades, and it’s probably here to stay. But that doesn’t mean we have to use it ourselves.
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