Monday, April 23, 2012

Etymology – OK?

I love the origin of words and how they work themselves into our vocabulary. Take for instance the word OK, Okay, O.K. – where did it come from? We use it on a regular basis, but why?

There is no accepted indication on this, but several possibilities. The earliest evidence suggests a Choctaw word meaning “it is so”. Early missionaries ended many lines in their translation of the Bible to Choctaw with “okeh” in 1825.

Another written attestation is the particle ‘kay’ used by West African slaves, possibly the Mande and/or Bantu tribes and recorded in North Carolina slavery records of 1784. The Bantu word waw-kay, or the Mande phrase o ke is argued as a possible etymology.

An abbreviation fad in Boston began in the summer of 1838. OFM, “our first men,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes” were used as well as exaggerated misspellings. One predecessor of okay may have been OW, “oll wright” which a decade later became “oll korrect” or “oll kurreck.”

The term achieved national prominence in 1840, when supporters of the American Democratic political party claimed it stood for “Old Kinderhook,” a nickname for Democratic presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, NY, who was Andrew Jackson’s protégé, touting the slogan “Vote for OK.” In response, Whig opponents attributed OK, in the sense of “Oll Korrect”, to Andrew Jackson’s bad spelling. The country-wide publicity surrounding the election appears to have been a critical event in okay’s history, widely and suddenly popularizing it across the United States.

There are other folk etymologies that may claim the origin from corrupted speech. Immigrants from Scotland used the common phrase “och aye” (“oh yes”), or from the Lakota word “Hokaheh” rendered as “Let’s go!”

With no definitive agreement on exactly where the term originated it has certainly made its way into our everyday vocabulary. Where ever it came from, it’s ok with me!

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