The Grammarphobia Blog

The unchurchly church key

Q: A friend asked me if I knew the source of the term “church key” to describe the opener used for beer and soda cans. I told him I didn’t know, but I was sure you would. Thanks for your help.

A: In this world of pop-top cans and twist-off bottle caps, some readers of the blog may not have had the pleasure of puncturing a beer can or uncapping a bottle of brew with a church key.

For anyone unfamiliar with the gadget, a typical church key has a triangular thingie for piercing cans and a slotted or hooked part for prying off bottle caps. (Pull tabs for cans weren’t invented until the early 1960s.)

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says the term “church key” originated in the US in the 1950s. The dictionary suggests that the implement was called a “church key” because the can-opening part resembled an old-fashioned key.

But Cassell’s seems to have gotten the beer cart ahead of the draft horses.

The expression apparently originated earlier in the 20th century, perhaps as far back as the late 1930s when beer was first sold in cans, according to the word sleuth Michael Quinion.

Quinion, who used to run a museum of cider-making and now runs an online museum of words, says the name actually comes from the shape of the old-fashioned bottle openers that preceded church keys.

The round or oval ends of these bottle openers “reminded people of the often ornate handles to big, old-fashioned door keys,” Quinion writes on his website World Wide Words.

Why church keys? In the experience of most people, he says, “such big keys opened church doors.”

“It’s also more than probable that an irreverent joke was attached as well, in that drinking beer was an unchurchly thing to do,” Quinion adds.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.