How we got the “Command” symbol - Macenstein

How we got the “Command” symbol

I was in need of the ⌘ symbol for a top secret project today, and not knowing the proper Unicode combo by heart, I fired up the old character palette to copy it. While there, I noticed that while all the other symbols had the expected names (“Erase to the Left”, “Upwards White Arrow”, etc.) that for some reason, Apple was calling our beloved “Command Symbol” “Place of Interest Sign” instead.

Since that name is not nearly as cool, I decided a quick Google was in order, and at the risk of my more pretentious “I already knew that” fanboy readers ridiculing me for my ignorance, I found the story on by Andy Hertzfeld (one of the key members of the original Apple Macintosh development team during the 1980s) interesting enough that I thought I should share with the class.

“We thought it was important for the user to be able to invoke every menu command directly from the keyboard, so we added a special key to the keyboard to invoke menu commands, just like our predecessor, Lisa. We called it the “Apple key”; when pressed in combination with another key, it selected the corresponding menu command. We displayed a little Apple logo on the right side of every menu item with a keyboard command, to associate the key with the command.

One day, late in the afternoon, Steve Jobs burst into the software fishbowl area in Bandley III, upset about something. This was not unusual. I think he had just seen MacDraw for the first time, which had longer menus than our other applications.

“There are too many Apples on the screen! It’s ridiculous! We’re taking the Apple logo in vain! We’ve got to stop doing that!”

After we told him that we had to display the command key symbol with each item that had one, he told us that we better find a different symbol to use instead of the Apple logo, and, because it affected both the manuals and the keyboard hardware, we only had a few days to come up with something else.

It’s difficult to come up with a small icon that means “command”, and we didn’t think of anything right away. Our bitmap artist Susan Kare had a comprehensive international symbol dictionary and she leafed through it, looking for an appropriate symbol that was distinctive, attractive and had at least something to do with the concept of a menu command.

Finally she came across a floral symbol that was used in Sweden to indicate an interesting feature or attraction in a campground. She rendered a 16 x 16 bitmap of the little symbol and showed it to the rest of the team, and everybody liked it. Twenty years later, even in OS X, the Macintosh still has a little bit of a Swedish campground in it. “

I’m not an avid Swedish camper, so I don’t feel all that bad that I didn’t recognize this symbol, but I’m sure that story was somewhere on the System 7 startup discs and I lost 10 Apple street cred points in the eyes of the grizzled, bearded Apple historians for admitting I didn’t know ⌘ ‘s origins. However, I know I have many younger readers who only recently got on the Apple bandwagon and who likely did not know that story either, so hey, I took one for the team. Now at least YOU can pretend to be an Apple know-it-all, just like the big guys.

Of course, the hardest part of being a know-it-all is finding a smooth way to steer the conversation towards the topic you wish to smugly expound upon. If you find yourself stuck, just do what I plan to do – start referring to the Copy and Paste commands as “Place of Interest Sign + C” and “Place of Interest Sign + V” just to mess with people until they ask what the hell you are talking about, allowing you to nicely segue into the above story.

28 Responses to “How we got the “Command” symbol”
  1. Gudjon says:

    I read a version of this story that stated that she had seen the symbol during a trip to Iceland… But that could be the old battle between Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark to try to own up to the other countries accomplishment (For example: Leifur Eiriksson, the guy who sailed first to America was born in Iceland, but his father was Norwegian, so ther Norse try to steel that…)

    Here, this symbol is widely used to mark places of interest like hot spring fields, waterfalls, parks, etc. and not camping sites, they have a totally different sign.

  2. Doug Robertson says:

    While the name may have been “Apple Key” in the beginning, we affectionately called it by what I thought was a common nick name “Splat.” Everyone in the eighties (ie. presenters to tech support) would refer to command sequence as “Splat-C or Splat-V.” We all thought this was pretty new, cool.

    When we “old” original 1984 Mac users get together, we still find that term memorable since we just don’t hear it used any more. Wonder why. It was so “Apple” at the time.

  3. MacSheikh says:

    I already knew that. 🙂

  4. Impaler says:

    Very interesting, thanks for posting!

  5. pattern recognition says:

    Maybe I spent too much time on a IIe as a child but I’ve never gotten over my tendancy to call it “open apple.” This is becoming a real problem as more friends of mine get new macs with keyboards that just say command and have the splat.

  6. Carcinogenius says:

    Same here in Finland, it’s used to mark a place of interest on maps and road signs. It used to be a common symbol in Northern Europe, used on jewelry, artwork etc. It was also on some old Finnish coins, and I’ve heard some people actually call the command key “the penny key”.

  7. Peter Åverling says:

    For us in Sweden the sign is all familiar to us as a traffic sign for “Point of Interest”.
    Scroll down this site:
    and you will find the sign. There is also a sign for “Camping ground”. We are very proud to have a swedish sign on every Mac keyboard.

  8. CyberTeddy says:

    when i saw this symbol here in this article, i just thought directly: ” it’s a symbol for intressting places in sweden”. where i live, we have a couple of those “interessting places” 🙂

    >Finally she came across a floral symbol that was used in Sweden to indicate an interesting feature or attraction in a campground. She rendered a 16 x 16 bitmap of the little symbol and showed it to the rest of the team, and everybody liked it.

    to bad the symbol has not copyright 😉

  9. Örjan Larsson says:

    Thats right, this sign is for place of interest here in Sweden.

    Heard a similiar story, though that some Apple folk even checked with people selling Apple here in Sweden, at the time.

  10. Brian says:

    I have to second the “open apple” comment. That’s how I still refer to it, and I forsee myself referring to it in the future.

  11. Peter says:

    Actually, I had heard that it is a “bathroom” symbol in some European country.

  12. andrew says:

    odd point of fact. the swastika symbol was actually a asian version of “point of interest.” if you look at old maps of japan (and some current ones) you’ll see the symbol near temples and castles.

  13. Petter says:

    The symbol is not Swedish, it´s Scandinavian. And apparently used in Finland as well …

  14. Jeremy says:

    Great. Now, when I casually throw in “Place of Interest Sign + C” into conversations with young’uns, they’ll be like, “yeah, I read that Macenstein article too, wasn’t that interesting?” and I’ll be all “actually, I already knew that years ago, and furthermore, what is Macenstein?” and they’ll go “uh-huh, right.”

    Thanks for ruining everything.

  15. Dan S. says:

    ?, a square with loops at the corners, which is sometimes referred to as Saint John’s Arms, the Place of Interest Sign, or a Saint Hannes cross; it is also similar to a traditional heraldic emblem called a Bowen knot.

  16. Martin Hill says:

    I’ve noticed a few times when there is a detour that involves going around three lobes of a clover interchange there’s often a diagram on the sign that looks almost like the command icon.

  17. Rick says:

    In programming circles “splat” is often used to denote an asterisk in your code.

  18. Mark Jacobson says:

    I seem to remember a time when it used to share a key with the “Open Apple” and there was a “Closed Apple” on the other side of the spacebar. It took me a long time to stop calling it “Open Apple”. I remember the “splat” name, but didn’t really use it much.

  19. iShervin says:


  20. Barry says:

    In freeway terminology, this would be a “cloverleaf” intersection.

  21. Martin says:

    Also in Estonia this symbol refers to place of interest (or showplace or sight). Examples

  22. Dan says:

    I call it a “puppy foot!” Ha! LOL!

  23. Smorgasbord says:

    I wanted to use the ¢ on my Apple several times, but didn’t find out till lately how to get it. Just hit OPTION and $ and it will appear. Now, instead of showing $0.29, I can show 29¢.

  24. Nuno says:

    In Denmark is a sign of place of interest as well as in Sweden and Finland. It must be some Nordic stuff.

  25. Petter says:

    So, we´ve established that this symbol has the same meaning in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Estonia. Anyone else?

  26. Gudjon says:

    Yes. It also has the same meaning in Iceland and I think also in the Faroe Islands.

  27. Interesting. Nice that Apple’s newer keyboards actually have the word command imprinted on them.

  28. Guna says:

    I can assure that this sign has the same meaning (place of interest) also in Latvia 🙂

    As I currently live in Sweden I can assure presence of that sign also in Sweden. For those swedes who want to learn driving theory, I recommend to check this page

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