keying on Scully


Mulder instructs agents setting an ambush in a theater to catch a criminal.
-- We know that if he shows, he'll be keying on Scully so wherever she is, she should not leave your sight. We've got two hours before the performance. Know this place inside and out. We don't want any shots fired, if we can help it.
The X-Files, TV series

The criminal is supposedly going to kill Scully. But I have no idea what meaning of the verb "key" or "key on" is used. Is it a phrasal verb, or a verb with the preposition ON? Thank you.
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    I've never heard any phrasal verb that uses "key on" with some unusual meaning. As far as I can tell, the screenwriter used "keying on Scully" to mean "focusing on Scully."


    Senior Member
    English - England
    I wasn't familiar with this but it's in the OED:

    4. intr. orig. and chiefly U.S. With on. To pay particular attention to a person or thing; to focus or concentrate.
    1967 Black World Dec. 91/1 The new keying in on black theater for Harlem, black plays by black writers.
    1977 M. Torres in R. P. Rettig et al. Manny ii. 43/2 We keyed in on big-volume grocery stores. They were the easiest marks.
    2003 M. Gilfillan Rivers & Birds 120 Another good-sized bird farther off on a power pole, keying in on us.

    to key on ——

    intr. N. Amer. (orig. and chiefly Sport). To focus or concentrate on; to pay close attention to.
    1966 Boys' Life Aug. 6/3 Pros..can't devote defenses strictly to Sayers,..but they will be keying on him.
    1989 Peterson's Hunting Ann. 1990 30/2, I key on high spots in the deep swamps because deer will go to them to rest.
    1996 Ice Hockey New Rev. 21 Dec. 4/1 We really tried to key on Scott Young; make sure every time he picked up the puck he had a Panther in his face.
    2004 E. Kelly Winning the Game (2010) iv. 48 This is so unfair... I wonder why he doesn't like me... I bet he is going to key on me for the rest of the game.


    Senior Member
    English - Northeast US
    For me, "key in on" is obvious and normal, while "key on" is not clear. In the TV example the context helps make it clear.
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