also key-word, "word which serves as a guide to other words or matters," 1807, from key (n.1) in the figurative sense + word (n.). Originally in reference to codes and ciphers. In reference to information retrieval systems, "word from the text chosen as indicating the contents of a document" (1967).
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Perhaps it is related to Middle Low German keie "lance, spear" on notion of "tool to cleave with," from Proto-Germanic *ki- "to cleave, split" (cognates: German Keil "wedge," Gothic us-kijans "come forth," said of seed sprouts, keinan "to germinate"). But Liberman writes, "The original meaning of *kaig-jo- was presumably '*pin with a twisted end.' Words with the root *kai- followed by a consonant meaning 'crooked, bent; twisted' are common only in the North Germanic languages." Compare also Sanskrit kuncika- "key," from kunc- "make crooked."
Modern pronunciation is a northern variant predominating from c. 1700; earlier and in Middle English it often was pronounced "kay." Meaning "that which holds together other parts" is from 1520s. Meaning "explanation of a solution" (to a set problem, code, etc.) is from c.1600.
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).
Old English word "speech, talk, utterance, sentence, statement, news, report, word," from Proto-Germanic *wurda- (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian word, Dutch woord, Old High German, German wort, Old Norse orð, Gothic waurd), from PIE *were- (3) "speak, say" (see verb).
The meaning "promise" was in Old English, as was the theological sense. In the plural, the meaning "verbal altercation" (as in have words with someone) dates from mid-15c. Word-processor first recorded 1971; word-processing is from 1972; word-wrap is from 1977. A word to the wise is from Latin phrase verbum sapienti satis est "a word to the wise is enough." Word-for-word "in the exact word or terms" is late 14c. Word of mouth "spoken words, oral communication" (as distinguished from written words) is by 1550s.
It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world. Watch carefully and erase, while the power is still yours, I say to myself, for all that is put down, once it escapes, may rot its way into a thousand minds, the corn become a black smut, and all libraries, of necessity, be burned to the ground as a consequence. [William Carlos Williams, "Paterson"]