Backspace Key: Key Label's Influence on Key Purpose

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .
MS Digital Media Keyboard 3000 backspace
Backspace key, Microsoft Digital Media Keyboard 3000

In late 2000s, When i first learned about the Backspace ⌫ Key in Internet Explorer for going to previously viewed page, my thought is: “What a Microsoft abomination!” — there's nothing logical about it. However, i found that it is simply very convenient, practical. Especially so if you don't have 5-button mouse with dedicated backward/forward buttons. The alternative, such as Alt+ or ⌘ command+[in Linux and Mac, are simply not as convenient. They require 2 keys, and going to the previous page is frequently needed.

In late 2000s, Apple's Safari browser also adopted this Backspace ⌫ key for going to previous page. But removed sometimes after 2010 when Apple started trackpad with 2-finger gestures.

In Linux, Google Chrome also use Backspace ⌫ key for going to previous page, but not so in Firefox by default. You can turn it on though. [see Firefox: Set Backspace Key to Go Back To Previous Page]

Note, Google Chrome removed the function of Backspace ⌫ going to previous page in late 2016.

In Gnome's file manager nautilus, and xfce's thunar and lxde's pcmanfm the Backspace ⌫ key also works. It go back to one directory up.

Key Label's Influence on Key's Purpose

I also learned, in the past few years, that the label, wording, on a key, has significant influence on how the key is being adopted by software. One major example is Apple vs PC keyboards. [see Difference Between Apple and PC keyboards] For many keys, they send the same scancode, however, they are labeled differently.

Apple iMac Keyboard A1242-big
Apple keyboard (A1242), year 2009. [see Apple Keyboards ⌨] [image source ]

One such example is the Backspace ⌫ key. On Apple keyboard, that key is labeled “Delete”. On PC, the Backspace got adopted for “going back” in many applications (besides Internet Explorer, it's also used in Explorer (the folder viewer) for going to the previously viewed folder, and in image viewers for previous image.) Yet, that key is never used for anything for delete, except in text editing (again, as “going backspace”, not necessarily delete, depending on whether you have overwrite mode on. (in text editor, overwrite is usually activated by pressing the Insert key.) ).

On Mac, that key is often used for deleting things. For example, to move a file to trash is Cmd plus that key. To empty trash is Cmd+Shift and that key. And, that key is never used for “going back” purposes.

The Delete ⌦ Key

On PC keyboards there's also a key labeled “Delete” in the {Home, End} key cluster (aka “forward delete”, sometimes labeled as “Del”, or ). On Windows, because there's no other key labeled “delete”, so that key is used for delete operations, such as deleting file. On Apple keyboards, since the Backspace ⌫ key is already labeled “delete” , so the Delete ⌦ is almost never used in the past 20 years and still not used much. It isn't even support in many text editors. In many text editors, to forward delete you might need to press Shift+Backspace ⌫. Many Apple keyboards don't even have the {Home, End} key cluster.

[see Apple Keyboard History ⌨]

Another such example is the PrintScreen / SysRq keys. That key has a long history back to 1970s. The original function of these keys are no longer applicable in modern computers. So, in Windows, it's used for screenshot (copying the screen to clipboard), because the word “PrtScn” of that key is quite suitable. However, on Apple keyboard, those obsolete Prt/Scn/SysRq, ScrLk, Pause/Break, was never there. In some full Apple keyboard, they have keys labeled F13, F14, F15 instead. On a Mac, screenshot is done by the combination ⌘ command+Shift+3, which seems quite arbitrary.

Curiously, Unicode has a PRINT SCREEN SYMBOL .

Keys

modifier keys 20200721 Fhswv
Modifier Keys
the day i lost control
Control Key
menu key 78f06
Menu Key
compose key
Alt Graph, Compose, Dead Key
keyboard spacy spacebar 2-s250
Space Bar
wnm keyboard home cluster2
Home End
big ass return and 1u backspace nuwc6-s289x217
Big Fat Enter Key
Havit keyboard home end 20200721 J73hS-s250
Page Up/Down
LK201 arrows W3rsk-s300
Arrows
escape key 20200721 wR9TS
Escape Key
MS Digital Media Keyboard 3000 backspace-s250
Backspace
Microsoft Wireless Comfort Desktop 5000 backspace bzT69-s250
Delete Key
function keys f5 f6 f7 f8 5673-s336x186
Function Keys
Backspace Insert PrtScn keys-s250
SysRq ScrLk Pause Break
Dell RT7D30 Enhanced Multimedia Keyboard volume wheel
Volume Wheel
Logitech Wave Keyboard zoom button-s228x274
Zoom Button
key_symbols_2021-05-30
Keyboard Symbols ⌘ ⏎ ⌫
Keyboard Enter/Return Key Symbol
mac_key_symbols_vmZmV
Shortcut Notations

Key Label