Tuesday, November 25, 2008
"OK" - The Holy Grail of Etymology
How are you? I'm ok. (fine)
How was your exam? Oh, it was okay. (not excellent but not poor either)
Did you hurt your leg? No, its o.k. (uninjured)
Are all the above uses for the word "OK" , okay?? (correct)
So, let me ask you now, is ok/OK/o.k./okay a word? or is it an acronym or an abbreviation for some words? And whatever it is, where did it originate? Never really thought about it, did you? Neither did I. But a few days back, I learnt that hardly anyone knew what it meant or where it came from... Let me enlighten those of you who're interested.
Over the past couple of days, I went through quite a few documents online, and learnt that "okay" was surrounded by numerous controversial explanations. Some of them were quite funny too. But b4 I enlist some of those, I want to ask u - What do u think ok means? Keep that in mind and read on....
Lets keep the true, or should i say "most accepted" explanation for the end. First, some aberrations...
Most words of modern English are believed to have come from some other language. Thus, came many of the explanations below:
1. Greek "olla kalla" - all right/satisfactory
2. Red Indians' Choctaw "okeh" - it is so
3. Finnish "oikea" - proper/correct
4. Latin "omnis korecta" - all right
5. Scottish "och aye" - "all is well"
Boring?? Let me tell you a few of the better ones then:
1. OK stands for "Old Kinderhook", which is the nickname of Martin Van Buren, the 8th American president(1837-1841) who was from Kinderhook, NY. During his campaigns "OK" was used as a branding agent.
2. They are the initials of "Old Keokuk", a native american tribal chief who used to sign treaties with his initials.
3. They come from the signature of a railroad shipping clerk, "Obadiah Kelly" who put his initials on bills of lading after checking them.
4. It's short for "Orrin Kendall", a cracker (biscuits) supplier to the Union Army during the Civil War. Their crackers were considered to be of very good quality.
5. Short for "Aux Cayes", a Haitian port famous for its rum.
6. Greek usage - "Omega khi" - incantation used to drive away fleas
I guess that's enough of suspense. Let's come to the most accepted one now, and probably the funniest too.
In 1963-64, Allen Walker Read of Columbia University uncovered the truth behind "ok" in a series of articles published in the journal "American Speech". According to these articles, OK's origin dates back to 1838. In the summer of that year, Boston newspaper editors started creating abbreviations for various phrases, ex. GTDHD - "Give the Devil his due", OFM - "Our first men", etc. This practice is very similar to what we do today on the internet. Often, these editors would deliberately misspell (as a joke) some of these abbreviations. It was in this fashion that OK was born. On March 23, 1839, one of the editors at Boston Post wrote this "....perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the [Providence] Journal, and his train-band, would have the "contribution box",etc. - o.k. - all correct - and cause the corks to fly....". The o.k. represents a misspelt "all correct" as "orl korrekt". This abbreviation was repeated in various news articles and became quite common jargon.
OK would've become a ghost, just like GTDHD and OFM, if it were not for various other occurences of the same term. You can say it was popularized and marketed by incidents such as "Old Kinderhook" and many others.
I'm sure there are still many other explanations cited by various scholars for "ok". You're free to believe any of them (you can even share them with us), but one thing's for sure. "OK" is here to stay.....
P.S. To read about other interesting facts on the origin of words/phrases, you can check out "Word Myths" by David Wilton and Ivan Brunetti.