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Mac 101: The history of the Command key "pretzel"

Mike Wehner, @MikeWehner
July 27, 2013
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You've probably tapped it at least a few times today without ever knowing exactly what it is or what it's called; I'm talking about the strange, swirly square emblazoned on the Command key (that's Unicode U+2318, for the font fanatics). So just what exactly is it, and who decided it would be the symbol for such an important key?

The shape itself, which has appeared in different forms for thousands of years in Europe, may have its origins in a heraldic symbol called the Bowen knot. As a glyph, it goes by several different names including the Gorgon loop and Saint John's Arms.

The symbol has come to symbolize many things over the past 2,600 years or so, but it didn't become an iconic part of computing culture until 1984. As related by Folklore.org, the story goes that when Steve Jobs first saw the keyboard command list for MacDraw he was unhappy with the number of Apple logos cluttering up the list, as the Apple symbol was used on the keyboard's action key. He demanded that his team find a suitable symbol to replace it.

Apple's bitmap artist, Susan Kare, immediately began browsing for a new icon and stumbled upon the familiar symbol, which is used on modern roadside signs in Scandinavia to highlight a point of interest or cultural heritage. She presented the symbol to the team, they squealed with delight, and the Command key as we now know it was born.

What's your preferred nickname for the wee squiggle? Let us know in the comments below.

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