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The Qwerty Quandary

August 10, 2011

 Like many old timers, I have grudgingly accepted the passing of such favorite things as hand-written letters, penny candy, Brownie cameras, vinyl records, 15-cent McDonald hamburgers, elevator operators and the friendly, human voice that once answered our inquiring telephone calls.  But I am alarmed by threats to an even more cherished tradition: the qwertyuiop keyboard.

          The loss of this 137-year-old system, better known as Qwerty, would be traumatic for both old and young users. Practically everyone who has learned to touch type in the English language since 1874 has done so on a keyboard where the 10 letters q-w-e-r-t-y-u-i-o-p appear on the top line of the lettered keys. And most of us who have used the system for some 50 years can still tickle the keyboard at an impressive speed.

          This is one skill I have that impresses my granddaughter, that and the fact I can still do the soft shoe.

          The qwertyuiop keyboard is based on the layout created in 1873 by an Englishman, C. Latham Shales, for use on his typewriter. It first appeared on a mechanical Remington typewriter in 1874. The configuration was intended to keep those keys most likely to be pressed consecutively well separated so they would not jam. (Obviously such measures are no longer necessary. But who’s counting?)

          Efforts to replace the qwertyuiop keyboard with more efficient systems have been tried over the years but have repeatedly failed, possibly because of our nostalgic fixation on this comforting old system. This is not unique to seniors; Qwerty whets the imagination of all ages. Witness the many Qwerty quips and tricky qwertyuiop word games on the web and elsewhere.

          The nickname Querty has even made it into but not yet the OED.

          The pronunciation of qwertyuiop is a matter of personal taste. I have heard it pronounced with three, four and five syllables. The five-syllable version—quer-ty-oo-ee-op—is said with a catchy cadence.

          Despite all of this fascinating interest in Qwerty, there are danger signs on the horizon. The computer geeks at Best Buy, whom I consult frequently, call Qwerty “the dinosaur in the digital age.” An article in The New York Times Magazine on August 15, 2010, said that many designers believe our tenacious commitment to Qwerty is “holding up a revolution in interface design that should have started with the touch screen.”

          Other, more subtle signs that the digital wave is lapping at our keyboards creep up daily. Look at the abbreviated keyboards on some smart phones and iPads which look like Querty but act more like apps. Some have even added freestanding “” keys.

          Next thing we know some genius will introduce an alphabetical keyboard where the first line of letters starts with a-b-c-d-e. I think anyone who does so should be handcuffed to a 1930 mechanical Underwood typewriter until he or she learns to touch type on this new-fangled system.

          I admit that Qwerty is bizarre, baroque, inefficient and hopelessly out of style. What’s not to like about a system with so many familiar human frailties? I propose we keep it  around for fun and games and for the sense of comfort this querulous old friend still gives us.


From → humor

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