Where am I supposed to learn the meaning of the weird key-combination symbols on a Mac?

I'm specifically talking about the hollow up arrow, the broken switch circuit symbol, the hollow up arrow with a hollow square under it, the caret, the forward arrow with a bar or pipe in front, and the circle with an arrow leading out of it. The only weird symbol I have actually drawn on my keyboard is the command symbol which is like a clover. The other symbols I mentioned respectively mean: shift, option(alt), caps lock, control (only one I got right away), tab, and escape (the most frustrating one).

Clearly these must be documented somewhere (although why they're not on the keyboard is very odd to me) but where are they discussed?

Update: I totally forgot the other, much sillier ones: strike-through caret is enter (number pad), up-left arrow is home, down-right arrow is end, and the fairly more obvious right, u-turn, left arrow is carriage return.

CommandOptionShift!ControlTabReturnEnterDeleteEscapePage UpPage DownHomeEndArrow Keys

I'm missing an image for caps lock, but you see what I mean. I've seen some app short cuts as: CommandOptionEnter which leaves me wondering okay, command-option, what?

Here's the images from Apple's 10.6 article which isn't nicely formatted:

Command Shift
Option Control
Enter Return
Up Arrow Down Arrow
Left Arrow Right Arrow
Page Up Page Down
Top (Home) End
Delete Forward Delete
Tab Right Tab Left


Here's a chart from OS X Keyboard Shortcuts that lists all the main icons, their primary names, and alternate names/symbols:

Apple Keyboard Symbols chart from osxkeyboardshortcuts.com

This Apple fansite has a similar list on a page with other Mac hints.

OS X Keyboard Shortcuts also provides descriptions for the most commonly seen icons. This official Apple site is similar, but is targeted at new users making the switch from Windows.

And as a bit of historical trivia, this Folklore.org blog post explains where the Command icon came from. The original idea was to use the Apple logo, but Steve Jobs decided there were "too many Apples on the screen!" and ordered a change. The icon you call "weird" and "like a clover" actually started life as the campground symbol on Swedish road signs.

I remember seeing some of these icons drawn on the keyboards of older Apple computers; why they were discontinued, I don't know.

(An earlier revision of this answer contained links to Apple documentation that stopped working.)

  • 3
    The first link is a lot better; I am totally amazed that there's no help article actually on the system. These symbols are pretty bad for people who just switched. I mean Enter, Home, and End... no one has ever used a symbol for those until they use a Mac. – dlamblin Sep 25 '09 at 14:23
  • The 10.6 article finally seems to get them all, even left tab. – dlamblin Dec 14 '09 at 8:39
  • There's a standard for such symbols. It's ISO/IEC 9995-7. Apple keyboard engravings are quite close to it. So are some DIN 2137-1 keyboards and some Canadian keyboards (per governmental requirements). – JdeBP Dec 13 '15 at 15:11
  • 1
    @JdeBP Interesting! I'm not about to pay 118 Swiss Francs for a copy of that standard in French though. I think your second link is missing a piece, too. – Pops Dec 13 '15 at 16:59

You can activate the "Character palette":

  1. Go to System preferences
  2. Select International
  3. Click on the Input menu tab
  4. At the bottom, check the box Display the input menu in the menu bar
  5. At the top, check the box Character palette


Character palette

PS: My system being in French, I am translating these options back to English...

  • The US system lists "International" as "Language & Text"; The dialog is the same one that in Textedit (and many other apps) comes up with option-command-T. However, unless you know how to type the "option character" you won't find it's name. You could search by name if you were guessing. – dlamblin Sep 25 '09 at 14:17

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