Nevermind the fact that these two words are both irregularly feminine

I was always taught in school that llave is key, like the kind you use to open doors / crank a vehicle, etcetera. Though when I learned one day that llave can also refer to the faucet on your sink or bathtub, I was, to say the least, confused. My first instinctive idea was to figure out the link between a door key and a water faucet, and it has continue to stump me.

Clave on the other hand seems to be the more abstract way to say key... the kind of key you would hear about in a project.

The key to understanding English is to expect anything.

The key to eating healthy is to eat mainly fresh vegetables.

I know that clave is also understood in the musical context.

This guitar is in the key of C minor. (@steverrill)

He likes to touch the keys on the piano.

I realize there could be regional differences with these words, but I am interested to see whether there is a deep, embedded meaning inside these words that allows their meanings to be used somewhat similarly. Because even though most people used the word contraseña for password, I also know that clave is used sometimes instead. And in my humble opinion, a password is pretty much the same as a key, well, more like a code, I suppose.

  • I'm not sure about key equivalent in Spanish when is used to music instruments (I only know tecla, cuerda, or the name of the piece in the musical instrument), but the word clave is the most frequent that I use in the examples that you provided. Mar 12, 2015 at 13:44
  • When refering to the symbol in score, the treble clef may be called either llave de sol or clave de sol, at least in Chile.
    – Rodrigo
    Mar 12, 2015 at 15:27
  • 1
    Be careful with clave in the musical sense. I was using phrases like "this guitar is not in the right key" and was told by my band (in Spain) that clave is the wrong word. Clave refers to the clef symbol in written music (partitura.) The correct translation of "this guitar is out of key" is "esta guitarra está fuera de tono." A better example: we play this song in the key of C Minor = "tocamos esta canción en el tono de Do Menor." Mar 12, 2015 at 23:59
  • D'oh.. Can't believe that I forgot that I have said destonado to reference an out of tune guitar before and been understood.
    – dockeryZ
    Mar 13, 2015 at 11:59
  • @dockeryz the most usual expression for a guitar that is out tune would be desafinada. fuera de tono gives the idea that it is out of key (though possibly in tune with itself.) Mar 14, 2015 at 15:30

5 Answers 5


The "llave" in the context of a faucet may also be called "llave de paso" and is the one that lets the pipes feed the faucet or the whole house water stream:

llave de paso

We also use "llave" for some tools like "llave inglesa" (Monkey wrench) or "llave allen". We also use "llave" for "llave de judo", a movement of the martial art discipline in which you immobilize your opponent.

If we check the etymology of "llave" we learn that this word comes from latin clavis, and then the word evolved from "Clavis" to "llave".

La palabra latina clavis pasó originalmente al castellano con el sentido de “llave”. Siglos después, en el uso culto, la palabra clavis se convirtió en “clave”.

Eso explica que en el fondo una clave es una llave: es algo que sirve para abrir algo que está cerrado, ya sea una cerradura o un misterio oculto.

(quoted from this reference)

I don't think that these words are interchangeable. I would favor "contraseña" over "clave" ("clave" has a broader and more abstract meaning to me that a "contraseña") but I would never use "llave" in this context, unless I want to make an analogy like "they open a door to knowledge or to mysteries". I use "llave" for physical things and "clave" for abstract ones.

  • para abrir algo que está cerrado although very common sense sounding seems to be a good link between the different uses of llave. Since the water flows when you pull the lever on your sink, you are indeed opening something, the valve as you said.
    – dockeryZ
    Mar 12, 2015 at 13:58
  • Since you also mentioned that wrenches are called llaves as well, it makes me wonder why a screwdriver is called a destornillador.
    – dockeryZ
    Mar 12, 2015 at 14:00
  • We indeed say "abre el grifo", for example. A "llave" can do more than open. It could start an engine (llaves del coche). And I forgot to mention another acception of the word "llave": una llave de judo. I don't know how much this has to do with the other ones...
    – Diego
    Mar 12, 2015 at 14:07
  • 1
    @Diego Car keys "close" an electronic circuit (a network consisting of a closed loop, giving a return path for the current). Una llave de judo is used to "b/lock" an oponent movement; see grappling hold.
    – quantme
    Mar 12, 2015 at 17:21
  • @quantme, Bien visto!
    – Diego
    Mar 12, 2015 at 17:34

As Diego said, they both originate from the same latin word, so the meaning is naturally very close.

In general lines, you will talk about a "llave" when it is a physical object (house key, water valve). I have heard some (old) Spanish people (my great-granma) even talking about "llaves de luz" (electric switch).

If it is instead an abstract concept, you will use "clave" (music key, clue, password, database key...). From the top of my head I cannot recall any usage of "clave" for a physical object.

  • 4
    There are. The highest brick in an arch is called "clave" in architecture. Two musical instruments are called "clave": a baroque keyboard (also called "clavicordio") and a pair of wooden sticks that are hit. The three words are part of the same family of "clavis" derived words.
    – Rodrigo
    Mar 12, 2015 at 19:18

There are several pairs of words derived from classical languages that coexist and have similar meanings, but differ in that one remains attached to the root form, and the other evolves according to the Spanish phonological preferences.The name in linguistics for this phenomenon is doblete (in Spanish).

I do not know if it's a rule, but I think that the evolved form is closer to the everyday meaning (eg, familiar objects, like "las llaves del auto"), whereas the classic form is used in preference to refer to objects of disciplines or technologies, more abstract concepts (like "ideas clave") and formal style.

Examples besides clave / llave:

flama / llama

rótula / rodilla

sigilo / sello

macula / mancha

forma / horma

clamar / llamar

foco / fuego

causa / cosa

atónito / tonto

frígido / frío

directo / derecho

cómputo / cuenta

aurícula / oreja

folio / hoja

íntegro / entero

You can find many other examples. The first word of the pair is closer to Latin.


Llave generally is the real object to open doors, etc. Except in some situations like others mentioned before: llave de judo, etc.

Clave is like a password. It is not tangible.

  • Llave de judo is not an exception. It's a metaphor that refers to the objects key and lock.
    – Rodrigo
    Mar 12, 2015 at 22:00
  • 1
    It is an exception in my answer. It is not tangible :P
    – Dahnark
    Mar 12, 2015 at 22:18

La llave sirve para abrir y cerrar, puede ser para una puerta, el paso de un líquido (un grifo), o en sentido figurado el corazón u otras cosas.

Clave no tiene nada que ver, aunque en inglés se use la misma palabra.

Clave puede ser el conjunto de reglas y correspondencias que explican un código. Entiendo que en inglés pueden usar la misma palabra porque lo interpretan como "abre un mensaje o canal de comunicación".

Clave también es "algo importante", "un instrumento musical", "Con el carácter o el tono de", o "Signo que se pone al principio del pentagrama para determinar el nombre de las notas"

  • "Clave no tiene nada que ver" Incorrecto, tiene mucho que ver, etimológicamente y semánticamente.
    – leonbloy
    Mar 16, 2015 at 15:16
  • No tiene nada que ver con la primera frase, con mi explicación, con algo que sirve para abrir y cerrar físicamente algo, aunque como ya puse sí que se puede interpretar como que abre un mensaje o canal de comunicación.
    – skan
    Mar 16, 2015 at 18:36

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