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As useful and easy as it is to use a mouse to interact with your computer, most of the time it’s much quicker to simply use key commands with the keyboard to access commonly-used functions. Combinations of the Shift, CTRL, Option (Alt), and ⌘ (Command) modifiers multiply your keyboard real-estate dramatically.

But what do these keys mean, and what does the odd little cloverleaf ⌘ have to do with anything? Shift is obviously a carryover from the typewriter days; physically shifting the mechanism that imprints letters to paper so that capitalized characters are used.

The CTRL key’s origins lie with early teletype machines as a keyboard modifier. The key allowed commands such as ejecting a printed page, clearing the screen or ringing the bell on the terminal.

The Option or “Alt” key is a modifier carried over from keyboards made for early Lisp and MIT computers where it was labeled the “Meta” or ◆ key and allows alternate characters or input. Similar to the function of the shift key.

The command key on an Apple keyboard used to be represented with the typical Apple logo dating to the days of the Apple Lisa keyboard that allowed the user access to all of the available application commands by key combinations. However, during a development meeting for a new piece of software with significantly more commands than other programs, Steve Jobs remarked on how many little Apple icons were on each menu label and exclaimed that the developers were “Taking the Apple logo in vain”, and so the search went out for an alternative.

Susan Kare, Apple’s bitmap artist sought out an appropriate symbol that would fill the void and settled upon a symbol used in Sweden on tourist signs to represent a point of interest. It’s symmetry and simplicity were exactly what was called for. While the symbol, called a Bowen Knot, Gorgon Loop, or St. John’s Arms, depending on where you go, is common in European history; it’s likely the Swedish “point of interest” icon generally refers to the shape of Borgholm Castle, a popular 13-Century ruin and common point of interest in Sweden, iconized and simplified for tourists.

So the next time you’re zipping through your work, take a second to reflect at the history behind the funky cloverleaf next to your space bar and be happy you’re not taking the Apple logo in vain.

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