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Friday, January 9, 2015

This is key

It being winter, Canadian thoughts most naturally turn to...


(As I write this, it feels like -27 Celsius outside, so who can blame us?)

A Wordlady reader has asked about the words "key" (used to mean a low-lying island, not the thing for unlocking a door), "cay", and "quay".

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Let us start with the word "quay" (pronounced "key"). Here is the OED definition:

A man-made bank or landing stage, typically built of stone, lying alongside or projecting into water for loading and unloading ships, a wharf.

It is certainly not a very common word on this side of the Atlantic, though here in Toronto we have a road running alongside the lake called "Queen's Quay". Really, why is English spelling so ridiculous? Try explaining to someone why that isn't pronounced "Kweenz Kway"! 

This word came into English from Norman French, and its origin can be traced from there to the Gaulish (Celtic) word caio- (an enclosure, probably originally an enclosing hedge). The French word was probably originally used with reference to fence-like wooden revetments, which were used to stabilize riverbanks and allow boats to moor. 

In medieval French and English, it was pronounced "kay" and (surprise) it was spelled "kay" or "cay". Then, however, the French adopted a new spelling for it, "quai", or "quay", and we just HAD to have this new spelling. The French had introduced "qu" spellings for English words like "queen" (originally "cwene"), because that is how they spelled the sound "kw". But French pronunciation moved on, with the "w" sound disappearing from their French words like "qui" and "quand", whereas we continued to pronounce our "w". So, whereas it made a kind of sense for the French to start spelling "cay" as "quay", it made no sense for us to follow them.

Another word that was pronounced "kay" at the same time was "key" (the "lock-and-key" one). It was pronounced "kay" until the late 1600s. But in Northern England, people started to pronounce it "kee", and this pronunciation crept southward. Under the influence of one "kay" pronunciation shifting to "kee", the pronunciation of "quay" also shifted from "kay" to "kee". This is how we ended up with a word that looks like it should be pronounce "kway" actually being pronounced "kee".

 Now to "cay".

A low insular bank of sand, mud, rock, coral, etc.; a sandbank; a range of low-lying reefs or rocks;orig. applied to such islets around the coast and islands of Spanish America.

This comes from Spanish cayo shoal, rock, barrier-reef , which may ultimately be of the same origin as "quay",or perhaps from a native Caribbean language.


Here are some examples of "cays":


The Exumas are an archipelago of 365 cays and islands, beginning just 35 miles southeast of Nassau.

Rama Cay is an island in the Bluefields Lagoon on the eastern coast of Nicaragua

The Prickly Pear Cays are a small pair of uninhabited islands about six miles from Road Bay, Anguilla, in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. 

Just like "quay", the pronunciation shifted from "kay" to "key" (although for "cay" both pronunciations exist), and this brings us finally to our Floridian islands.  Because "cay" was being pronounced "key", people confused it with the other "key" (the "lock and key" one) and started using the spelling "key" for the low lying islands off the coast of Florida.

Remnants of the convoluted history of these words can be seen, for example:

Harbor Cay Drive, Longboat Key, Florida,

I'm sure the reader who asked about these words did not know how torturous it would be for me
a) sorting all this out 
b) looking at pictures of white beaches and azure water sparkling in the endless sun while I researched it. 

Longboat Key, Florida

Now, where's that Air Canada website? 

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.