If you’ve ever spent time in the Florida Keys, you’ve probably realized that residents are easygoing and friendly. That is, unless you speak the word that causes them to shudder uncontrollably, as if hearing fingernails scratch loudly across a blackboard, and back away.

kid Key West Conch Shell Blowing Contest

The fluted, pink-lined conch shell is a widely recognized symbol of the Florida Keys. Here, young Oliver Stuardi uses his shell as a unique instrument. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

In fact, if you don’t want to make Keys denizens cringe, don’t ever say “kontch” — because the widely-used word “conch,” despite its spelling, is properly pronounced “konk.” And pronouncing it properly is one of the few rules that must be followed in the island chain.

For those who haven’t encountered it before, a conch is a mollusk (sometimes known as a sea snail). That might not sound too appetizing, but actually conch meat is served and savored in scores of restaurants from Key Largo to Key West.

It tastes a bit like calamari, and it can be found in creamy white or tomato-based chowder, deep-fried fritters served with cocktail sauce, tangy chilled conch salad and even breaded and fried as conch steak. No two restaurants prepare it quite the same way — which means “foodies” can have a great time sampling conch in many different eateries, comparing tastes and cooking techniques.

As well as eating conch, early Keys residents used its fluted pink-lined shell as a horn for long-distance signaling. And according to legend, they came to admire the mollusk’s tough, hardy nature so much that they adopted its name for themselves.

Conch Republic secession

Former Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow (left) and other founders of the Conch Republic re-enact the historic secession ceremony during a previous “birthday party” for the irreverent republic. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Today conch is no longer harvested in the Keys, but the word “conch” refers to someone born in the island chain — which is affectionately known as the Conch Republic.

How did that name come about? The story involves stale Cuban bread, a governmental border checkpoint, a request for $1 billion in foreign aid, and the Florida Keys’ symbolic 1982 secession from the United States.

The story began when a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint was set up without warning in Florida City, at the head of the Keys, supposedly so agents could search cars leaving the Keys for drugs and illegal immigrants. The roadblock created a traffic jam many miles long on the only road that connects the island chain to mainland Florida.

The massive traffic delays threatened to derail the emerging tourism-based economy — and made locals furious. The border patrol checkpoint, they figured, meant the government was treating their beloved Keys like a foreign country. So, with impeccable logic, they decided the Keys should BECOME a foreign country.

On April 23, 1982, in front of an enthusiastic crowd at Key West’s Mallory Square, a hardy group of patriots proclaimed the Keys the independent Conch Republic and hoisted a flag bearing a large conch shell on a field of blue. They declared war on the United States by ceremoniously bopping a U.S. Navy sailor on the head with a loaf of stale Cuban bread, surrendered 60 seconds later and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid.

Key West

Costumes, wigs, makeup and towering heels are a must for entrants in the Conch Republic’s quirky annual “drag” race. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The story of the secession captured international attention, and the imaginations of thousands of people who flocked to visit the new “country.” Shortly after the excitement caused by the birth of a nation, the Border Patrol checkpoint quietly vanished and never reappeared.

Loyal citizens are still waiting for the foreign aid. But its non-appearance hasn’t dampened the spirit of the republic, whose motto is “we seceded where others failed.”

The 41st anniversary of the fateful secession will be commemorated April 21-30 during Conch Republic Days — an annual festival that proclaims Keys residents’ pride in being part of the irreverent, good-natured “country.”

Highlights include a re-enactment of the secession, a “drag” race for female impersonators, a lighthearted “sea battle” featuring historic tall ships, and the World’s Longest Parade — so named because its route down Key West’s famed Duval Street proceeds from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s still time to travel to the nation of islands for its 41st “birthday.” But if you can’t make the celebration, don’t worry; the exuberant nature of the Conch Republic is apparent all year long.

Whenever you arrive, though, remember one vital rule: don’t EVER call it the “Kontch” Republic.