Words-worth: Turnkey

A 'turnkey' system is one that is ready for immediate operation.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It may be as simple as a PC loaded with appropriate software or as complex as a nuclear power station. Or there's a 'turnkey contract', in which the supplier is not paid until the job is handed over, complete and ready to go. In each case, the idea is that making it work is as simple as turning a key in a lock. The modern adjectival use of 'turnkey' can be traced back to the 1930s: the phrase 'turn-key job' is found in the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, published in the US in 1934. It began to be used more widely in the 1960s in America, establishing itself here only recently. But the word has an interesting history. From the 17th century to the present day, a 'turnkey' is also a jailer, someone who literally turns the key in the cell door. But it also meant a device used by criminals for opening locked doors - and a tool used by dentists for removing teeth by using a twisting motion. Ouch!

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