Language Corner

How ‘Keysmash’ became the way internet users expressed their emotions

September 16, 2019

“English spelling can be so inconsistent, so random-seeming, so frustrating that it can make you want to pound out on your keyboard: ‘Asdjfoaasdasdasdasd!’” That’s what posted on a blog discussing some of the words people look up but misspell.

The post links to an “All the Words” entry on “asdf,” explaining that it’s a “keysmash,” “the first four letters from the left in the home row on a QWERTY keyboard.”

RELATED: AP sparks linguistic pandemonium with hyphen guidance update also links to its entry for “keysmash”: “a random string of letters and symbols typed out on a keyboard or touchscreen, used to signal intense emotion in written communication.” It’s a noun and a verb, which traces to between 1995 in 2000, when home computers were becoming ubiquitous. Urban Dictionary has an entry from 2007: “randomly hitting your keyboard to express an emotion. Works for excitement, anger, fangrilyness, and a whole bunch of other things, including adjectives.”

The earliest use in news content we can find is from The New York Times in 2015, when a columnist described a “keysmash” as “a string of actual gibberish—asdf;lkl, maybe—meant to signal that the typist has become so excited that she has lost control of her fingers.” Other news reports called it “random typing” meant to display emotion. So far, of the major dictionaries, only has an entry for “keysmash” or “key smash.” Remember, dictionaries follow usage; they don’t lead it.

“Keysmash” is trending, in part because of “internetspeak.” In her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, Gretchen McCulloch mentions “keysmash” in the first chapter, on informal writing, noting that “the majority of people will delete and remash if they don’t like what it looks like.”

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That means a true “keysmash” isn’t completely random. 

Most keyboards are “Qwerty,” so called because the first row of letters make up what looks like a word when typed from the left. 

The second row of letters contains the ingredients for a “keysmash,” beginning “asdf.” If you look closely at a Qwerty keyboard, you might notice that the “f” and “j” letters have a marker on them, often a small, horizontal raised bar. That’s so you can find those keys without looking, if you’re a touch typist. They are your “home” keys, where your index fingers are supposed to rest when they’re not typing and act as your guides to the keys around them. By extension, that row is the “home” row.

Those who use “asdf” as a “keysmash” are probably touch typists, McCulloch says. Writers who grew up on typewriters instead of keyboards or who are not touch typists might use “keysmashes” like “msmsmsmsmsm” instead, if they use them at all deliberately, keeping one finger each on one key.

Not everyone uses Qwerty keyboards. One popular alternative is called the Dvorak, which arranges the keys by frequency of use and ergonomics. As one site says, “The Qwerty keyboard was designed in the 1870s to accommodate the slow mechanical movement of early typewriters,” and is not well adapted to either touch typing or the way we type today, on small screens and not using all our fingers (and sometimes just thumbs). A “keysmash” on a Dvorak keyboard might look something like “aoeuaos,” or, if both sides of the keyboard come into play, like “asonason.” But McCulloch says the Dvorak users she talked to say they “just don’t bother keysmashing anymore at all because their layout makes it socially illegible.”

Many “keysmashes” show up on social media, whose keyboards and typing methods might differ. In fact, McCulloch said she has seen a second pattern of “keysmashes,” looking more like “gbghvjfbfghchc,” which she said comes from “thumbs smashing against the middle of a smartphone keyboard.” In an NPR interview, she said: “it looks like we’re just being monkeys typing randomly on a keyboard producing something totally incoherent, and yet there are social patterns to it. There are real linguistic trends to keysmash—even something that looks so random.”

Even gibberish can make sense to those who understand it.

RELATED: When nouns are turned into verbs

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.