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As far as I know these keys could be found on some keyboards that are extinct nowadays. I have to confess to have never seen any other keyboards in real life (save computer museums here) but standard 104/105 ones (as well as localised flavours of it) and Mac keyboards.

I am sure enthusiasts have fancy keyboards with lots of extra keys (possibly, including the keys in question) and it is probably true that computers that are neither PC, nor Mac come with their own keyboards. That being said, all these keyboards can hardly be called mainstream.

All right, Super has a direct equivalent in what they call the Windows key in MS world, but the other two seem to belong to the time long past. I remember seeing instructions with phrases like «Meta is Alt» and in some cases it has been «Meta is the same as Super». Hyper is even more enigmatic beast not unlike Unicorn.

Why are people in *nix world still sticking with these obsolete key names as though they corresponded to real keys? What is wrong with real Ctrl-Alt-Shift-Win(Super) from the perspective of the *nix community? I would like to know if there are any reasons to use these names except for historical ones.

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  • 4
    I personally prefer to live with the denial about having a windows logo on my keyboard.
    – Stewart
    May 26, 2020 at 15:54
  • The irony of people thinking about this as "lots of extra keys" is that the space-cadet keyboard had a mere 100 keys, fewer than most people are used to in the PC world. Even the U.S. Model M keyboard had 101. I am typing this on a "Windows" keyboard with 124 keys. Some ABNT2 Windows keyboards have 127 or more keys.
    – JdeBP
    May 26, 2020 at 20:10
  • @JdeBP It looks like you are using a keyboard with lots of extra keys :-). I think it is fairly accurate to say that ubiquitous 104/105 keyboard is the de facto standard. It houses quite a lot of keys for sure. However, the numpad keys are there for the sole sake of convenience. It it clearly possible to live without these 17 keys. 105 minus 17 leaves us with 88 keys against 100 of space-cadet. So, yes, the space-cadet keyboard does have lots of extra keys.
    – S. N.
    May 27, 2020 at 7:58
  • @JdeBP The answer by Stephen refers to this thread containing the following passages: «Mode Lock isn’t used», «Macro... saw little use in practice». So there were some extra keys on that keyboard, were they? Honestly, I would love to have a couple more modifier keys (why not «Meta» and «Hyper», for example?) added to the 105 keyboard. And there is some room for them on the keyboard, but I have my doubts it is going to happen any time soon.
    – S. N.
    May 27, 2020 at 8:02

1 Answer 1

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The main reason the names persist is probably that they are preserved in the X11 protocol definitions:

#define XK_Meta_L                        0xffe7  /* Left meta */
#define XK_Meta_R                        0xffe8  /* Right meta */
#define XK_Alt_L                         0xffe9  /* Left alt */
#define XK_Alt_R                         0xffea  /* Right alt */
#define XK_Super_L                       0xffeb  /* Left super */
#define XK_Super_R                       0xffec  /* Right super */
#define XK_Hyper_L                       0xffed  /* Left hyper */
#define XK_Hyper_R                       0xffee  /* Right hyper */

Because X has few modifiers (beyond the above, only Ctrl, Shift, Caps Lock), these modifiers remain useful, and their names along with them. Mod, Meta, Super ... keys? has more details.

Referring to the key between Ctrl and Alt as Super also avoids references to any particular logo, which can be considered an advantage. The names’ genericity, i.e. the fact that they don’t have a de facto meaning, combined with X’s ability to re-assign keys in whatever way the user desires, can arguably be both an advantage and a disadvantage (witness the confusion around Meta).

See also What do the keys on this Symbolics Space Cadet keyboard do? and What are the meta, super, and hyper keys? for the historical background.

I suspect the names will survive the transition to Wayland (assuming it ever completes), which would make this answer invalid of course.

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  • Thank you! Your explanation together with the posts you cite pretty much answers my question.
    – S. N.
    May 26, 2020 at 18:55
  • The USB doco refers to them as left and right "GUI", of course.
    – JdeBP
    May 26, 2020 at 20:21
  • @JdeBP I can just imagine user-oriented docs saying “press the left GUI key” ;-) May 26, 2020 at 21:28
  • That scenario actually happens. Someone's doco says to use "open apple" or "command"; the user with a "Windows" keyboard does not realize that this is the "GUI" key by other names. Then they ask questions about it. superuser.com/q/135284/38062 apple.stackexchange.com/q/61515/18044 apple.stackexchange.com/q/293816/18044
    – JdeBP
    May 27, 2020 at 14:00
  • @JdeBP I meant that literally. May 27, 2020 at 14:05

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