Wacky Word Wednesday: Qwerty

The humble keyboard. Fifty years ago no one could have predicted just how ubiquitous and how vital to our every day lives it would become. But it's now something few people could say they live without, and certainly us writers are big users of the keyboard.

Which brings us to this week's wacky word – qwerty. (Or QWERTY, as you'll sometimes see it written.) This one has a very specific meaning and it's not a word you could use unless you're describing a keyboard. But it's one of the few words in English that doesn't subscribe to the ‘u after q' rule, and when you know the story of the qwerty keyboard, you can understand why.

No doubt you've noticed that qwerty is actually the first six letters of the top, or home, row on a typewriter. But how did we come to use such an apparently random order of letters on our keyboards? Well, the very first typewriter – developed in 1868 by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes – did have all keys positioned in alphabetical order over two rows. Seems logical, right? But this caused a big problem. Because the type bars for the most commonly combined letters of the alphabet, TH and ST, were situated next to each other, the typewriter would jam. All… the… time.

So later in 1868 Sholes began his collaboration with Amos Densmore, who suggested a key arrangement that kept the most commonly used letters and pairs well away from each other so the machine was less likely to jam. Contrary to expectations the new arrangement would slow typists down, it actually meant they could type faster because jamming of the typewriter was far less frequent.

And so qwerty was born. There have been competitors, but none have been able to usurp the power of qwerty, especially since most people quickly memorised the strange arrangement of letters and developed typing techniques to get around it. (Frank McGurrin is thought to have invented touch typing in 1888.) In fact, the one real challenger to Sholes and Densmore's invention, Dr August Dvorak, said:

“Changing the keyboard format is like proposing to reverse the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, discard every moral principle, and ridicule motherhood.”

Dvorak's keyboard was arranged so typists' could type around 400 of the English language's most common words by using just the home row (on qwerty the figure is around 100). It also meant a typists' fingers didn't have to travel as far as on the qwerty.

Sadly we'll never know if Dvorak's keyboard would be easier or faster to use. The qwerty has secured its place in our homes, our offices, and our hearts and is unlikely to ever be replaced.

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