Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘OK’

debatable origins (19th century)

by David Crystal

The little word OK has a linguistic reputation that belies its size. Over a thousand words in English have an etymology which, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘origin unknown’. Nobody knows where bloke comes from, or condom, gimmick, nifty, pimp, pooch, queasy, rogue or skiffle. Theories abound, of course, some very ingenious. Did nifty arise as a shortened form of magnificat? Is gimmick from magicians’ use of gimac, an anagram of magic? But no word has attracted more theorising than OK.

Is it from Scottish och aye? Is it from French au quai (the goods – or girls – have safely arrived ‘at the quayside’)? Is it from Choctaw oke (‘it is’)? Is it from Wolof okeh (‘yes’). Is it from Latin omnis korrecta (‘all correct’, sometimes written by schoolmasters on homework)? Is it from the Greek letters omega + khi (an early incantation against fleas)? Is it from Obediah Kelly, a railwayman who used to authorise freight movements with his initials? There are dozens more.

Thanks to a fine piece of research by American lexicographer Allan Walker Read, we now know that all of these theories are wrong. It first appeared in 1839 in a Boston newspaper, where there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters – an early instance of a language game. KY, for example, would be used for the phrase know yuse (= ‘no use’). And OK comes from oll korrect, a humorous adaptation of the words all correct.

Why didn’t it disappear, like the other abbreviations did? Because in 1840 it came to be associated with a totally different use – as a slogan during the 1840 US elections. It was the shortened form of Old Kinderhook, the nickname of President Martin Van Buren – Kinderhook being the name of his hometown in New York State. There was a Democratic OK Club, with its members called the OKs, and they had a war-cry: ‘Down with the Whigs, boys, OK!’

The combination of the two usages, in a very short space of time, resulted in the rapid use of OK as an interjection meaning ‘all right, good’. Other senses soon developed, such as ‘fashionable’ (the OK thing to do) and ‘trustworthy’ (He’s OK). A century on, and the word was still developing new uses, such as ‘comfortable’ (Are you OK with that?). In British English, it received huge grafitti exposure during the 1970s, when the fad of saying that someone or something rules OK (= ‘is pre-eminent’) was seen on walls all over the country.

But OK has a linguistic reputation for a second reason: the number of variant forms it has accumulated over the years. There are variant spellings (okay, okey), a shortened version (‘kay), and several expanded forms (okie-dokie, okey doke(s), okeycokey). Today, I suppose it’s the basic OK form which is most often encountered, thanks to the dialogue button on our computer screens. Press OK and something will happen!

This is the fourth in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘unfriend’. Scroll back for ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

6 thoughts on “Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘OK’

  1. Talking of “Okay”, when my friend and fellow-poet the late Martin Johnston persuaded me to join SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) in 1980 as an editor, I soon found myself in a day-long argument with him about the correct way to spell “okay” (or is it “OK”?) on the subtitle line at the foot of a television screen. He argued for “OK” as being historically correct. Sure, I said, but it is now a word in English, like “Hi!” or “maybe”, so it should be spelled “okay”. Not “OK”, because that sounds like you are shouting the work OK, rhymes with MOCK! We never came to an accomodataion. I hope SBS now spells it “okay”.

    • Yes, I’ve always spelt it ‘okay’, and was surprised to find it came from OK. (That’s one reason I chose this extract). Okay is an acceptable variation now. I agree that OK looks like shouting!

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