The Obituary for Alan Walker Read, the man who tracked down the origins of 'OK'
October 25, 2002 11:33 AM   Subscribe

The Obituary for Alan Walker Read, the man who tracked down the origins of 'OK' [from The Economist, by way of Slate] Your interest in Professor Read may be marginal, but where OK came from is pretty fascinating. Fourth word spoken on the moon?
posted by mojohand (19 comments total)
Great article! But a gut feeling tells me that Mr. Read was wrong. My vote's for the Indian okeh.
posted by Junker George at 12:16 PM on October 25, 2002

Mr. Read would have gladly acknowledged the possibility of new information later coming to light, but he would have never gone with a "gut feeling." He was a scholar of the first order. His work is impeccable. He was an expert, at the top of his field, and backed every result with minute facts. That he is the very first footnote in H. L. Mencken's landmark work The American Language says a lot of about Mr. Read's excellent credibility.

Having actually read the work (ahem), I consider the case for OK closed with the Oll Korrect explanation. It's rock solid.
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:30 PM on October 25, 2002

I have to say that I do associate the word OK with the U.S, interesting man.
posted by johnnyboy at 12:33 PM on October 25, 2002

As an ex resident of Kinderhook I've always beleived that to be the original. But for more discussion:

" . . .a common hand gesture for "good" or "O.K." is created by forming a circle out of the index finger and the thumb and spreading out the other fingers. When done on the right hand, this resembles an O and a K. Of course, if there is a connection, it might be that the gesture was made to echo the word, and not the other way round.
It seems, then, that every slang-based etymology creates a chicken-egg question."
posted by ahimsakid at 12:38 PM on October 25, 2002

“When you want to shit in ease/Place your elbows on your knees/Put your hands against your chin/Let a fart and then begin”.

Impeccable, alright.

As a side-note, is there a single synonym for "OK" (or "okay")?

"Will you go to the store after work?" "Okay."
"How are you feeling?" "Okay."
"Keep your eyes peeled for poisonous frogs." "Okay."
"What word starts to look wrong the more often you type it?" "Okay."

Yep. Damn useful word. R.I.P, Professor.
posted by yhbc at 12:39 PM on October 25, 2002

posted by widdershins at 12:43 PM on October 25, 2002

I was just talking to people about the origins of OK while in Europe. I noticed that it is common in every major language except French. I presume that (in addition to being snooty and obsessed with the purity of their language) this is because they have "ca va," which is the closest synonym I know.

Also being from near Kinderhook, I've always bought that explanation.
posted by shinnin at 12:48 PM on October 25, 2002

The 'oll korrect' business seems strange until you realize there was a minor fad for such jocular misspellings, 99% of which are completely forgotten. Note that the first print citations from 1839 explain it as "all correct".

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as 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 OK was OW, "oll wright," and there was also KY, "know yuse," KG, "know go," and NS, "nuff said." -- Straight Dope

posted by dhartung at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2002

I think it is interesting how much one can learn about oneself, by taking a critical view of what one enjoys. I enjoyed that article about a language scholar and the search for the origins of a slang term. I also enjoyed the novel "The Professor and the Madman" By critically analyzing my enjoyment of these two things, I can determine to a high degree that I am a dork.
posted by Mushkelley at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2002

I think there's still room for debate:

"Wolof (West African) "waw kay" = "yes indeed". Supported by Prof. J. Weisenfeld, professor of African and African-American religion at Columbia University. It was shown by Dr Davis Dalby ("The Etymology of O.K.", The Times, 14 January 1971) that similar expressions were used very early in the 19th century by Negroes of Jamaica, Surinam, and South Carolina: a Jamaican planter's diary of 1816 records a Negro as saying "Oh ki, massa, doctor no need be fright, we no want to hurt him." The use of "kay" alone is recorded in the speech of black Americans as far back as 1776; significantly, the emergence of O.K. among white Americans dates from a period when refugees from southern slavery were arriving in the north."
posted by quercus at 1:07 PM on October 25, 2002

<gratuitous thread hijack>
</gratuitous thread hijack>
posted by dilettanti at 1:24 PM on October 25, 2002

My intuition favors the American Indian story.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:20 PM on October 25, 2002

Back in '71 or '72, I audited a course of his. He was a sweet and a gentle man; his joy and his enthusiasm for his subject were contagious. He'd be the last to mind if somebody found an earlier derivation for "okay." I'll hoist a few to his spirit tonight---and each toast will be a rude, lewd, crude word, because he was the only scholar interested enough in words to investigate the derivations of even the rudest. Here's to you, Alan Walker Read, and F*CK! I wish I known you better (or at least been able to take more of your courses)!
posted by realjanetkagan at 2:21 PM on October 25, 2002

Québec French uses OK (pronounced "oh-KIE") extensively, far more than the d'accord taught in schools.
posted by cardboard at 2:44 PM on October 25, 2002

So, he started out to discover the origin of the term, while at the same time convinced it was American in origin? Sounds to me like he was trying to find evidence that confirmed his preconceived ideas.
posted by salmacis at 4:09 PM on October 25, 2002

salmacis, as a science, etymology doesn't much allow for control groups and double-blind examinations of historical sources. Pretty much the basic unit of research is the earliest print citation. Etymologists are painfully aware that this is a poor way to trace colloquial speech, which may take years to make its way into a print source.

For example, given all the various explanations for the whole nine yards {my favorite linguistic mystery}, it's quite surprising that its first print citation is a 1966 Vietnam War memoir (with the not-what-you-think-it-is title Doom Pussy), where it already works as shorthand for "a big mess". If it's really from WWII airplane gunner slang, why does it take 20 years to get written down? If it's really from cement trucks, or burial shrouds, or any of the other civilian explanations, why is it first showing up in slang attributed to military aviators? If it has a widely-used literal meaning, why isn't that seen long before the metaphorical use? We may never be able to nail this one down any further.

Returning to OK, it's also entirely possible that the word was influenced by other usages, perhaps an oki or other variant. I can easily see OK=all right and oki=yes merging into okay over time (and that also explains okey-dokey, which is almost always an affirmative reply, rather than an adjective). This sort of thing happens all the time -- the apparent Yiddish origins of copacetic migrated toward a familiar Latin-influenced spelling. And given the very poorly supported theories based on various immigrant origins, it seems much more logical to place the blame, as it were, on a national fad spread via newspaper (the internet, one will note, of its day). It would take much longer, perhaps generations, for something like okeh to worm its way into the language. And here I tip my hand: etymology isn't just looking for the earliest print citation, after all. It's looking for the social pattern that spread the word into general usage.

If it came from slaves, why didn't it come in different dialects? Why didn't it first show up in slaveholder speech? Why would Northern abolitionists be among the first to use it? If it came from French, why don't the first citations come as "oquai, as the French or Cajun say"? If it came directly from "Old Kinderhook", why would Van Buren's opponents be using it? Why would "Old Kinderhood" get linked to "all right" in the first place? Wouldn't it come with political shadings, which would get print allusions? It doesn't. Instead, it appears linked to the "oll korrect" explanation from the very beginning, and sweeps its way into national consciousness through a national political campaign. See, the real explanation doesn't have to give the campaign slogan source short shrift -- it can be acknowledged as an important step, simply not the origin. So what we have, in the end, isn't merely a duel of print citations -- we have a route traced back through a tree of social context.

Most of all, what we have is a fascinating core sample back into history, and at long last, a cute retort to those teachers who told you 30 years ago that you should "spell out okay". It turns out that "OK" is the real, correct spelling....
posted by dhartung at 6:51 PM on October 25, 2002

Given that this discussion is a few days old, I don't expect many to read this comment. However, I found a very well-written refutation of Read's works on this page. The author, Jim Fay, Ph.D., finds a number of holes in Read's theories in this exhaustive essay. Whether or not Fay's conclusions are correct, he casts grave doubt on the manner in which Read's conclusions were reached.
posted by TreeHugger at 1:09 PM on October 28, 2002

Well, I'll be durn. Thanks, Treehugger!
posted by Junker George at 3:16 PM on October 28, 2002

Boy, am I glad I checked out this thread again.

dhartung: A magnificent comment; even if some of the specifics ("'OK' is the real, correct spelling") turn out to be wrong, everyone who thinks their vague feelings can go up against the labors of etymologists will get some idea of what's involved in figuring out the origin of a word.

TreeHugger: I can't thank you enough for bringing that paper to my attention; it's well written and reasonably convincing (though he leans a little hard on "everyone on the frontier must have known the Choctaw expression" -- it's true there would hardly be much evidence of such knowledge, but it's still a weak link; also, his idea that you can spell "okeh" in Cyrillic gives me pause -- Russian has no h), and I've corrected my dictionary accordingly (and lost some respect for Read, who seems to have been appallingly overbearing and careless of the truth).
posted by languagehat at 9:16 AM on October 29, 2002

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