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The Origins of Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, Ctrl+X, and Ctrl+Z Explained

By 26th May 2022June 28th, 2022No Comments

We use them dozens of times a day: The Ctrl+Z, Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C, and Ctrl+V shortcuts that trigger Undo, Cut, Copy, and Paste. But where did they come from, and why does Windows use those particular keys for those functions? We’ll explain.

It Goes Way Back to Apple

The story of Ctrl+Z, Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C, and Ctrl+V shortcuts for Undo, Cut, Copy, and Paste in Windows goes back to the very early 1980s. The earliest ancestor of these shortcuts appeared on the Apple Lisa computer in 1983. The Lisa was a precursor of the Macintosh and Apple’s first mouse-based computer.

A man using an Apple Lisa computer.
The Apple Lisa (1983) introduced the Z, X, C, and V shortcuts. Apple

While developing the user interface for Lisa, Apple programmer Larry Tesler chose to use the Z, X, C, and V keys in conjunction with Lisa’s Apple key to represent Undo, Cut, Copy, and Paste. Together, they made Apple+Z, Apple+X, Apple+C, and Apple+V. In a circa-2016 email to Dr Brad A. Myers of Carnegie Mellon University, Tesler described exactly why he chose those specific letters:

The Lisa was the first system to assign XCVZ to cut, copy, paste and undo (shifted with the “apple” key). I chose them myself. X was a standard symbol of deletion. C was the first letter of Copy. V was an upside down caret and apparently meant Insert in at least one earlier editor.

Z was next to X, C and V on the U.S. QWERTY keyboard. But its shape also symbolized the “Do-Undo-Redo” triad: top rightward stroke = step forward; middle leftward stroke = step back; bottom rightward stroke = step forward again.

Tesler also notes that the Apple+Z key originally served as both an Undo and a Redo key—instead of the multi-step Undo we now know today (with Ctrl+Y usually being Redo on Windows), which makes his symbolic explanation of the letter “Z” for Undo make more sense.

The Apple Lisa keyboard layout with the Apple key and Z, X, C, and V keys highlighted.
The Apple Lisa keyboard layout with Apple, Z, X, C, and V keys is highlighted. Apple

These keys are also handy in that they are located in the lower-left corner of the keyboard near meta keys such as Apple (on the Lisa), Command (on the Mac), and Control (on PCs). So if you’re using a computer’s mouse with your right hand, you can quickly trigger these frequently-used functions with your left hand.

When Apple developed the Macintosh, it brought forward the Lisa’s Z/X/C/V keyboard shortcuts but adapted them for the Command key that was unique to the Mac platform. So on a Mac in 1984, as with today, you’d press Command+Z for Undo, Command+X for Cut, Command+C for Copy, and Command+V for paste.

It’s worth noting that while the Apple Lisa introduced the Z/X/C/V shortcuts, the actual concepts for Undo, Cut, Copy and Paste originated earlier with interfaces for software developed for the Xerox Alto in the 1970s.

The Shortcuts Come to Windows

At the dawn of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) era for Microsoft, Apple licensed some elements of the Macintosh OS to Microsoft for Windows 1.0, but Redmond took care to not exactly duplicate the Macintosh interface. It’s probably no surprise then that between Windows 1.0 and Windows 3.0, Microsoft originally assigned different shortcuts for Undo, Cut, Copy and Paste than the ones most people use today:

  • Undo: Alt+Backspace
  • Cut: Shift+Delete
  • Copy: Ctrl+Insert
  • Paste: Shift+Insert

Windows still support these legacy shortcuts (and some people still love using them). At some point during the development of Windows 3.1, Microsoft brought Ctrl+Z, Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C, and Ctrl+V to Windows as well. They had already appeared in Word for Windows 2.0 in 1991, and possibly other Windows Office apps.

We asked former Microsoft VP Brad Silverberg the reason for including these new shortcuts in Windows 3.1, and he recalls that the Windows team might have been trying to be consistent with Office apps, some of which originated on the Macintosh. They were also more user-friendly: “I liked ZXVC better—easier to remember, and it seemed like a good idea,” says Silverberg.

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