Some of those elected to Phi Beta Kappa are known to decorate themselves with a distinctive piece of gold jewelry, known as the “Phi Beta Kappa Key”. It takes the form of a flat, square, old-style pocket watch key, which was originally intended to be displayed dangling from a waistcoat watch chain, though currently this item is usually incorporated into a pendant, lapel pin or tie tack. The insignia engraved on the key-- which has changed little if at all since its inception in 1776-- features the sort of iconography one would expect of a Masonic-style secret society: on the obverse appears a hand at the lower right pointing to three five-pointed stars, which, according to the PBK handbook, represent “…the three distinguishing principles of their Society-- friendship, morality, literature (learning).” The capitalized Greek letter acronym of PBK, which appears at the center , makes reference to a motto which translates as “Love of wisdom the guide of life,” according to the handbook. At center on the reverse appear the letters “SP” (Societas Philosophiae) in an arcane cursive script, above the founding date of December 5, 1776, and below the name of the recipient and that of the affiliated college or university awarding the honor.
Phi Beta Kappa was truly a secret society until 1831 when, under the leadership of John Quincy Adams and a few others at Harvard, the organization was transformed into an above-board collegiate honor society, mostly in response to “anti-Masonic agitation”. There remains a “secret handshake” in use among some older members, but it is no longer included in the initiation ceremonies.
Despite-- or perhaps in response to-- the self-conscious pomp which attends this academic honor, in modern times a member of Phi Beta Kappa is more likely to be the butt of jokes and sarcastic remarks than to be regarded with any great esteem for his scholarly accomplishments as an undergraduate. No doubt there are, nationwide, many serious liberal arts majors graduating every year with very high marks whom pragmatic American employers find utterly useless. It is also clear that there is a resolutely anti-intellectual attitude which prevails in American life, rendering the quintessentially American scholastic honor a sort of misbegotten child. This is nowhere more evident than in the disparaging humorous asides at the expense of Phi Betes which are to be found in newspaper editorials, on television and in the movies, which the Society is now cataloguing with some wry interest. Among the most memorable of these is the scene in the movie “Pillow Talk” in which the diminutively lecherous character played by Nick Adams is being held at bay by Doris Day, who, defending her legendary on-screen chastity, remarks: “I’ve never slugged a Phi Beta Kappa before!”