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Key - both because it"s the plate you line the other plates with, and to distinguish it from "Blue", the printer"s term for Cyan.
In printing, the Key plate is the one assigned to the darkest ink, which usually carries the defining elements of image detail.
In theory, the Key plate could be a dark brown, or a dark blue, or some other dark ink. I have worked in situations where a dark ink other than black substituted for it.
All of the oldest pressmen I’ve know said it was Key, because it was the key to the CMYK process.
I am sorry, I cannot agree with the recent answers... david asked about K, in cmyk... it seems to me that if we are discussing cyan, magenta, yellow, then the K has to be black to be consistent.. the question didn"t say: "what could the k mean or stand for in the context of a printing process.. etc...
k may equal key, k may be discussed as the "key" , if you printed the K (black ink?) first.. then maybe yes, you could use it a a registration key.. I am certainly not an old timer press guy.. however the recent answers are not consistent to the specific question... what then does the C stand for in cmyk, the suntan ink? but at least we are having fun discussing this... the current generations of inkjet printers all have LK, would you call that light key, light registration key? k=black or at least k equals the black plate... enjoy the evening, jim bean
"Kicker" plate is what an old plate retoucher told me many eons ago, CMY being weak without the kick, but I like the idea of the k in the letter black. More importantly, this is English. In other countries, is it still CMYK or do they go by the first letters of their color names?
I don"t believe that this would be an appropriate use of "K". If we go back to the fundamentals, C, M and Y are the subtractive primaries derived from the additive primaries R, G, and B, of which they are the reverse (though not precisely). The key plate is an *extra element* with no direct correlates in the additive scenario, whose presence is necessitated by the impurities in the CMY inks and their inability to generate, by themselves, a truly dark neutral black.
Giving either C or M the moniker "K" in 3-primary subtractive environments would represent a wildly confusing and inappropriate use of the term: C+M+Y are a non-changeable set, whereas K is the extra element added to an essential core.
I"ve always worked on the understanding that K stood for Key. Although I can see how the K in Black works for some people.
Back before Al Gore invented the internet and during the time of John Yule refined the CMYK process, the K in color printing stood for the key line and then its meaning moved toward black.
Here in Brazil is CMYK allright, and "K" is known as the "key" plate. At least that"s how press people teach in the graphics art colleges around here.

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K for black means key. It is an old letterpress term. Back when a full range black (not a skeleton black) was used, the black was more important and carried most of the detail in the image.