A keymap is a Lisp data structure that specifies key bindings for various key sequences.
A single keymap directly specifies definitions for individual events. When a key sequence consists of a single event, its binding in a keymap is the keymap’s definition for that event. The binding of a longer key sequence is found by an iterative process: first find the definition of the first event (which must itself be a keymap); then find the second event’s definition in that keymap, and so on until all the events in the key sequence have been processed.
If the binding of a key sequence is a keymap, we call the key sequence a prefix key. Otherwise, we call it a complete key (because no more events can be added to it). If the binding is
nil, we call the key undefined. Examples of prefix keys are
C-x 4. Examples of defined complete keys are
C-x 4 C-f. Examples of undefined complete keys are
C-x C-g, and
C-c 3. See Prefix Keys, for more details.
The rule for finding the binding of a key sequence assumes that the intermediate bindings (found for the events before the last) are all keymaps; if this is not so, the sequence of events does not form a unit—it is not really one key sequence. In other words, removing one or more events from the end of any valid key sequence must always yield a prefix key. For example,
C-f C-n is not a key sequence;
C-f is not a prefix key, so a longer sequence starting with
C-f cannot be a key sequence.
The set of possible multi-event key sequences depends on the bindings for prefix keys; therefore, it can be different for different keymaps, and can change when bindings are changed. However, a one-event sequence is always a key sequence, because it does not depend on any prefix keys for its well-formedness.
At any time, several primary keymaps are active—that is, in use for finding key bindings. These are the global map, which is shared by all buffers; the local keymap, which is usually associated with a specific major mode; and zero or more minor mode keymaps, which belong to currently enabled minor modes. (Not all minor modes have keymaps.) The local keymap bindings shadow (i.e., take precedence over) the corresponding global bindings. The minor mode keymaps shadow both local and global keymaps. See Active Keymaps, for details.