Monday, May 19, 2008

Ready? Ok.

For my final essay in English I chose to write on the origins of the phrase "Okay." It was rather difficult to do, especially since scholars (yes, highly educated people actually spend time debating and researching this sort of thing) can't seem to agree on the exact origin.
But it's not like this is my senior thesis or anything, just a 4-6 page essay for Eng 100.
Here 'tis: (Don't bother with the funny format-- it's weird transferring from word to the internet)

“You know this language that we speak,
is part German, Latin and part Greek
Celtic and Arabic all in a heap,
well amended by the people in the street
The Choctaw gave us the word ‘okay’…”
- Peter, Paul, and Mary “All Mixed Up”

A very commonly used word in the United States today is “okay.” Without it, people would have to resort to all kinds of words and phrases to accomplish the same purpose, such as “that’s fine,” “I am in total agreement,” or “I see what you mean”. The word is not only in popular use in America, but has spread to Great Britain, as well as dozens of non-English speaking countries. It sometimes acts as a one-word lingua franca between natives and English-speaking tourists. Its widespread use is usually attributed to previous British or American occupation of a country or from the pervasive influence of American cinema.

Dictionaries define “okay” or “OK” as “all right”, or a form of approval or endorsement. But where did this incredibly commonly used phrase originate? Rumors abound as to its real origin, including that it came from the Scottish saying “Och aye,” which is their way of saying “ah yes,” or the Greek “Ola kala,” meaning “it is good”(What Is, par 1). Still others say it originates from the saying “aux Caye,” referring to a port that exported a brand of rum in Haiti that was particularly good (OK). It is also sometimes attributed to an abbreviation of a Russian saying “Ochen Korosho,” meaning “all is well.” But these proposed origins are hardly supported by linguistic evidence (Okay, 2.2). Two other proposed linguistic sources that are not as far fetched come from African and Native American languages. The West African language Wolof has the expression “waw kay,” meaning, “yes” (Okay, 2.2.3). It is possible that slaves brought over from West Africa used the term “waw kay” in their native language to respond to requests or commands given them in the United States in their places of work (The Origin, par 14,16). The term may have caught on and been put to use by those who heard it. In the same fashion, the Choctaw word “okeh” or “oke,” meaning “it is so,” may have been used to express agreement: those who heard it spoken in correct context put it to use, just as any new word is articulated into one’s vocabulary. Although it is possible that these words were incorporated into American culture, it is not likely that one specific word would be responsible. It is more likely that these possible sources worked together to spread the popularity of the phrase, and did not act as its origin (The Origin, par 15). Tracking the history of the expression shows that it has been exported from America, instead of the other way around.

Some proposed origins lack historical evidence. For example, the idea that the word originated from a term used in World War Two to denote no casualties in a battle—from “Zero Killed” to “0K” to “OK”—is incredibly untrue, since the term had first been sighted in print almost one hundred years earlier. Others say it comes from the initials of Obadiah Kelly, a railroad inspector, who initialed approved documents and such. However, there is no accurate evidence that any such person ever existed.

There are two proposed historical origins of the abbreviation OK that are widespread among the American public. The first part goes back to 1840 and the re-election campaign of President Martin van Buren. Martin van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York (The Origin, par 10). To gain support from the working class, the campaign managers decided that calling van Buren “Old Kinderhook” would be a nice idea, arousing the home-grown feeling when van Buren was referred to. Supporters and rivals alike put the phrase into frequent use, shortening it to “OK” for ease.

The second popularly proposed origin has to do with another United States President—Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson was known for being the real “home-grown” president. He grew up in the countryside. It was said that Jackson was a terrible speller. A rumor began that Jackson spelled “all correct” as “oll korrect” (or various other spellings)—and that when he initialed documents, or checked them, he would write “OK” for “oll korrect”.

However, the nickname “Old Kinderhook” is not the source of OK, nor is the spelling, good or bad, of Andrew Jackson. The term “oll korrect” most likely has its origins in the late 1830s during a peculiar craze of purposeful misspellings and abbreviations (What Is, par 3) in Boston newspapers, particularly the Boston Morning Post. The fad began with the comical misspellings, and was followed shortly by the abbreviations. For example, “no use” was first misspelled “know yuse,” and then abbreviated “KY.” “Enough said among gentlemen” became “Nuff said ‘mong jentlemen,” and was abbreviated “NSMJ.” Additionally, the paper used "Bosting" for "Boston" and "Vell vot of it!" for “Well, what of it!” The most popular funny spelling was “oll correct” for “all correct.” The phrase was then abbreviated to “OK” (Okay, 2). This usage in the Boston paper predated van Buren’s campaign by a year.

It is the complex history of the word OK that makes it so difficult to pin down any particular origin. Whereas the van Buren/“Old Kinderhook” theory was so popular only until a short while ago, the theory that the Choctaw word has much to do with the origin of the word OK is even more popular, especially since some believe it has more fully and accurately been proven (Fay, par 5). On the other hand, although there may be some coincidental connection to the West African or Choctaw versions of "okay," it is possible that linguists who are arguing about the origins of "okay" today have forgotten about or are unaware of research done by linguist Alan Walker Read. Read determined that the real source was the "oll korrect" theory. In a series of articles, Read showed that "oll korrect" predated "Old Kinderhook" by a year or two (Etymology, 2). He also showed that Andrew Jackson not being a very good speller was not the source. Instead, he cited numerous Boston newspaper articles, from the years 1838 and 1839, using abbreviations as well as purposeful misspellings noted above. The newspaper even provided readers with “translations” of their abbreviations, and included “all correct” for “OK.” Whether the newspaper jokesters got the idea for their comical abbreviations from the Choctaws, West Africans, or if they made it up themselves, the evidence is clear that "oll korrect" is the origin of the ubiquitous saying "O.K." or, as it is sometimes written, "o.k." or "OK" or just "okay." Okay?


Janeite42 said...

This sounds very familiar...what's the reference for the Choctaw proposal? I'd like to read what they say.

adrien said...

i still think it's the choctaw one, no matter what the research from that read person says. i also think i'm going to start calling you "ol' kinderhook."