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The caps lock key has a downwards arrow like this as its icon on most keyboards:

enter image description here

Isn't that hugely counter intuitive and inconsistent with the way the Shift key is designed like? One would imagine that an upwards arrow, probably a filled one would make a lot more sense.

Are there historical reasons for this design?

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    I have never seen a keyboard with that icon on it. And a Google Image Search of 'PC Keyboard' doesn't show any with this either. So I think you just have one rare example here. Do you have any evidence that this is common? – JonW Sep 19 '14 at 9:44
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    @DaveHaigh So it does. So perhaps the question is 'why do 1 out of every 500+ unique keyboard designs have a down arrow for Caps Lock'. – JonW Sep 19 '14 at 9:54
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    it might be German keyboard layout related, the keybord in that pic I sent is German. ALso on Wikipedia it says on German keyboards the Caps is replaced by a character "for example "Caps Lock" becomes a hollow arrow pointing down" but it doesn't say why - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_keyboard_layout – Dave Haigh Sep 19 '14 at 9:57
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    Although ambiguous with the down arrow key, it suggests holding down the shift key. – jsejcksn Sep 19 '14 at 10:07
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    @JonW nope but every keyboard in my office, my laptop and my keyboard at home have that. as DaveHaigh said, it might be a German thing. – iFreilicht Sep 19 '14 at 11:16
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Wikipedia seems to be popular with the information so far... :)

So here's info from the history section of the page on caps lock

The Caps Lock key is a modified version of the Shift lock key that occupies the same position on the keyboards of mechanical typewriters. An early innovation in mechanical typewriters was the introduction of a second character on each typebar, thereby doubling the number of characters that could be typed, using the same number of keys. The second character was positioned above the first on the face of each typebar, and the shift key caused the entire type apparatus to move, physically shifting the positioning of the typebars relative to the ink ribbon. Just as in modern computer keyboards, the shifted position was used to produce capitals and secondary characters.

Because the shift key mechanism on a mechanical typewriter requires more force to operate and is usually operated by the little finger on the left hand, it was difficult to hold the shift down for more than two or three consecutive strokes, therefore the introduction of the Shift lock key also helped out people with disabilities who could not hold down more than one key at a time. The Shift lock key was introduced so the shift operation could be maintained indefinitely without continuous effort. It mechanically locked the typebars in the shifted position, causing the upper character to be typed upon pressing any key.

As described above, the Caps Lock behaviour in most QWERTY keyboard layouts differs from the Shift lock behaviour in that it capitalizes letters but does not affect other keys, such as numbers or punctuation. Some early computer keyboards, such as the Commodore 64, had a Shift lock but no Caps Lock; others, such as the BBC Micro, had both, only one of which could be enabled at a time.

A version of Caps Lock that behaves like a traditional Shift lock does exist on certain layouts such as the French AZERTY. Some operating systems and window managers allow Caps Lock to be used for a similar function. This behavior of the Caps Lock survives, however, in German and Austrian QWERTZ keyboards.

So I tend to agree with one of the comments on the question, that the down arrow is indicative of the holding down of the shift key, as has historically been the method to obtain capitals.

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    So that down-arrow character indicates a different function than Caps Lock - it's a Shift-Lock. So the down arrow is an icon for Shift Lock. – JonW Sep 19 '14 at 11:02
  • @JonW That's what it would seem, yes. Hopefully before long, this question will hit the hotlist and we'll get some more authoritative views from German and other keyboard users! – Roger Attrill Sep 19 '14 at 11:08
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    So tl;dr, on those keyboards, it uses a down arrow because it represents holding something down. :-) – T.J. Crowder Sep 19 '14 at 16:38
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    I have a German keyboard layout and caps lock also shifts ßäöü, the digit keys, +#, and .. It does however not affect ^´< and -, which I find quite confusing :-) – Bergi Sep 20 '14 at 10:40
  • @T.J.Crowder -- Or, more accurately, latching something down. – keshlam Sep 20 '14 at 17:17
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It may be related to QWERTZ keyboard layouts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QWERTZ

And you probably see it on most keyboards because you live/work in a country (Germany, Austria, etal) that uses the QWERTZ keyboard layout. See the orange countries in this pic. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7b/Latin_keyboard_layouts_by_country_in_Europe_map.PNG

[on QWERTZ keyboards] Some of special key inscriptions are often changed from an abbreviation to a graphical symbol (for example "Caps Lock" becomes a hollow arrow pointing down

I can't answer why this is done but it may help answer why you see it a lot.

It does looks like the keyboard in your pic is a QWERTZ keyboard because there is a Y where the Z should be. Also Ctrl is translated to Strg

  • I have never seen that symbol on Czech QWERTZ keyboards. So it might be specific to German QWERTZ. – svick Sep 20 '14 at 13:46
  • "There's a Y where the Z should be." I think you mean "... where the Z would be, if it where a QWERTY keyboard." – Tim FitzGerald Sep 21 '14 at 4:05
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While it is probably not overly relevant, on a mechanical typewriter the shift lock key tilts slightly down and in direction of the typist to lock. Given its small size (it is smaller than the regular shift key) and the considerable mechanical force one has to employ with one's pinky (and the typical pinky inclination one row above the usual shift row), one would glance off the shift lock easier if the key tilted away from the typist.

Now the German mechanical typewriters I knew did not bother labelling either shift or shift lock, and I have no idea when doing so was popular. So I cannot vouch whether the mechanical tilting action was ever in place at a time where the arrows were being used.

Another possible consideration is that shift and shift lock worked as opposites: the only way to release a shift lock action was to type the shift key itself, not (as it is customary with keyboards nowadays) the shift lock key again: that would not have accomplished anything.

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As others have mentioned, the downward arrow seems to be a particularity of German and Austrian QWERTZ keyboards.

There is a standard for depicting the function keys on a keyboard, part of ISO/IEC 9995. You'll see there are two possible symbols for Caps Lock, both of which point upward.

Depiction of function key symbols. Source: Wikipedia

The standard considers the different types of Shift and Caps lock and provides symbols for them.

  • Level 2 select (aka Shift)
  • Level 2 block ("To sustain the level 2 state in the currently active group")
  • Capitals lock ("To select the state in which only capital forms of the letters are entered. Other characters remain unaffected.")

(Note: These symbols render quite small on my computer. You may need to enlarge your font size to see them well, or see page 14 of the standard to view them in large type. PDF In English and French.)

I can't say how ubiquitous the application of this standard is. Anectodally I can report that it is applied inconsistently in Quebec, where the standard symbols seems to originate from.

Unicode gives another symbol (U+21EA), similar in style, which is also upward pointing and that has as comments "caps lock". I've seen this used on keyboards before as well.

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    For what it's worth there's a collection of caps lock keys at http://deskthority.net/wiki/Caps_lock – Roger Attrill Sep 19 '14 at 16:44
  • Sometime in 2008, Apple replaced the caps lock key on the macbook pro, doing away with symbols and replacing with the words caps lock. – Burhan Khalid Sep 20 '14 at 10:22
  • @BurhanKhalid I suppose it depends on where your keyboard is from. Yours is a US keyboard, perhaps? I happen to have a pre- and post-2008 Canadian French Mac keyboards, and both still have the ISO symbol. Comparatively my Logitech Cdn. Fr. keyboards use Verr Maj and my HP EliteBook laptop keyboard has both caps lock and verr.maj. written on it (so the same laptop can be sold in the entire Canadian market, I presume). – Tim FitzGerald Sep 20 '14 at 16:19
  • Interesting, I just noticed also on my Lenovo T530 it states 'CapsLock' and this machine comes with an Arabic/US keyboard. – Burhan Khalid Sep 20 '14 at 16:29
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Way overly simple answer:

The Down Icon (which comes from typewriters, most of the keyboard does (redesign please!)) represents the shift key being held down.

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