Iris asked me what O.K. stands for. Sarah seemed (initially) to be mildly impressed that I came up with an answer: it’s some kind of 19th-century railway slang derived from Swedish-accented “oll korrect” e.g. All Correct. As I said it, it sounded it a bit dubious, so I turned to Wikipedia.
Fascinating! This is a great Wikipedia entry. It turns out that I was sort of/partly right; the origins of “OK” are hotly debated. To sum up:
Various etymologies have been proposed for okay, but none have been unanimously agreed upon. Most are generally regarded to be unlikely or anachronistic.
There are five proposed etymologies which have received material academic support since the 1960s. They are:
- Greek words “Ola Kala” (όλα καλά) meaning “everything’s good” or “all good”; used by Greek railroad workers in the United States. It is also said that “O.K.” was written on the ships or other places to show that the ships are ready.
- Initials of the “comically misspelled” Oll Korrect
- Initials of “Old Kinderhook” a nickname for President Martin Van Buren which was a reference to Van Buren’s birthplace Kinderhook, NY.
- Choctaw word okeh
- Wolof and Bantu word waw-kay or the Mande (aka “Mandinke” or “Mandingo”) phrase o ke
I was especially taken by the discussion of the 1830s “comical misspellings” dialect fad in the U.S.:
A key observation is that, at the time of its first appearance in print, a broader fad existed in the United States of “comical misspellings” and of forming and employing acronyms and initialisms. These were apparently based on direct phonetic representation of (some) people’s colloquial speech patterns. Examples at the time included K.Y. for “know yuse” and N.C. for “’nuff ced.” This fad falls within the historical context, before universal “free” public education in America, where the poorly educated lower-classes of society were often easy entertainment for those who found fun in their non-universal language, epitomized by colloquial words and home-taught or self-deduced phonetic spellings….
- “The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.” Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of okay was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”
The general fad may have existed in spoken or informal written U.S. English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK’s original presentation as “all correct” was later varied with spellings such as “Oll Korrect” or even “Ole Kurreck.” Deliberate word play was associated with the acronym fad and was a yet broader contemporary American fad.
I read quite a bit of this out loud at the breakfast table while my family’s attention slowly drifted away and Iris tried to pretend that she had not asked me the question.
Goal for the summer: to re-introduce S.P., K.Y., K.G., and N.C. to their rightful place in American parlance along with O.K.