I'm curious about the history and purpose of the top-leftmost key on UK keyboards.

The primary symbol is the backtick ` which I know is useful in some technical contexts (e.g. Perl programming and Linux shell scripts), though most everyday users would never need it. Shifted, the key produces ¬, which I recognise as a NOT operator from formal logic, but again have almost never seen in use: the programming languages I have encountered use ! or ~ for negation.

With AltGr, the key produces ¦, which seems particularly obscure. Again the pipe is useful in some programming situations, but that's a normal pipe | and I have never seen this broken pipe used anywhere.

So why, historically, is there a key for these rather obscure symbols? I would have thought that there are many symbols that would be more helpful to most everyday users, such as the copyright sign, or the temperature degree symbol.


Although there are "US" and "UK" keyboards, they are actually both International keyboards and designed for users of different languages. Many of these people will use the grave accent (backtick).

  • Thanks Jason. My understanding is that Windows does not use this key to add a grave accent to a vowel (although Macs might). So perhaps it's more useful on Apple machines. – equin0x80 Oct 13 '20 at 4:21
  • Yes, I'm not 100% sure in terms of modifying characters as I only communicate in English. The grave accent key does, however, come in very handy in apps like DropBox Paper and even on this website as a shorthand for code insertion. – Jason Riley Oct 13 '20 at 4:25
  • Macs do use the backtick to add the grave accent. They use a dead-key system Windows doesn't really have an equivalent of, so you can generate àèìòù quite simply; & the same for any other accent, áëîñü etc BTW, the backtick is very useful on stack exchange, to do code blocks – Tetsujin Oct 13 '20 at 7:10
  • It has "kind of dead keys" but not the same as macOS. I use both OSes daily, the Mac's implementation is considerably better. Win 'dead keys' mean you have to type a space if you don't want the accent. macOS you specify if you want it, not if you don't. Makes for a much faster workflow. – Tetsujin Oct 13 '20 at 8:26

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