By now, you’ve surely realized that English is a very strange language filled with numerous rules being broken right, left and center. I wrote on Facebook that “colonel” and “geoduck” are especially confusing, as they way they are spelled is nowhere near how they are pronounced. And that got me thinking about words like quay, cay and key.

Just like with queue and cue or Segway and segue, here are words that are pronounced the same despite their wildly different spelling. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think that “quay” was pronounced like “kway.” The truth is all three words sound like “kee.”

A quay is a platform that extends either alongside or into the water for the purpose of loading or unloading boats. It can be made from any number of materials, like concrete or metal and it can largely be used interchangeably with terms like pier, berth or wharf. Here in Metro Vancouver, we’ve got Westminster Quay in New Westminster and Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver. A quay is a physical, man-made structure.

Despite its spelling, cay (sometimes “caye”) is pronounced exactly the same way (“kee”). It usually refers to a small, low-elevation island that sits on the surface of a coral reef. The term is mostly commonly used in the Caribbean. In addition to our Grand Turk ATV tour a few years ago, we visited a private island called Half Moon Cay. Disney’s private island is called Castaway Cay.

Confusingly, even though “cay” is most commonly pronounced as “kee” (just like quay), I’ve seen references online that say it can also be pronounced as “kay.” That sounds wrong to me. It could be a case of “Americanization” of language, like how “foyer” is pronounced as “foy-yay” in French but as “foy-yur” in some parts of the United States.

And finally, we have the word key. This is likely the word that causes the least confusion, as it is most commonly used to refer to the (usually) metal object you put into a lock to open or close it. “Key” has several definitions, like the “keys” on your keyboard, a “key” piece of information, or the “key” on a basketball court.

In the context of today’s discussion, “key” is synonymous with “cay.” It’s also a small, sandy island on the surface of a coral reef. That’s how we get Key West and the Florida Keys. From what I can gather, “cay” comes from the Spanish word “cayo” meaning shoal or reef. It combined with the English “quay” at some point and the word “key” referring to a small island emerged.

So, you could tell someone they can find the key on the cay’s quay, ‘kay?