did OKAY come from?
There can be no more
universal term that Okay. It is used in just about every language
in the world, and its use is probably even more widespread than Coca-Cola.
Yet nobody really
knows for sure where it originated. In fact, just as there can be no more
universal term, there can also be no more controversial when it comes
to determining its origin.
The reality is that
most theories are folklore, invented (albeit based on real occurrences)
to try to provide a definitive explanation. Personally, I subscribe to
the "coincidental coinage" theory - that is, "OK"
was in isolated and independent verbal use in a number of places in the
very early part of the 19th century prior to its first written appearance
(in the Boston Morning Post, on March 23rd, 1839). It would have
faded into obscurity if it were not for some of the other appearances
in the years that followed.
So here are just
some of the theories (some of which are, in reality, just attempts to
fix an earliest date, and some of which are highly fanciful!), and my
own personal summary appears at the end.
In the American Choctaw Indian language, there is a word okeh,
which means "it is so". It is likely (although I can find no
hard evidence) that this word was used in some American communities in
the early 19th century. There is a report that Andrew Jackson, during
the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, learned of this Choctaw word, liked
it, and used it.
Woodrow Wilson also
preferred this etymology, and used okeh when he approved official
papers. His use led to this particular form being picked up by Okeh
Records, "the name of a series of popular phonograph records"
[Mencken, 1936] as well as hot-dog stands, shoe-shining parlours and more.
Andrew Jackson Libel theory
Some time around 1832, Seba Smith was accused of libel in claiming that
Andrew Jackson endorsed a pronouncement written by his literary secretary,
Amos Kendell, with OK Amos. The details are not very clear, but
it is possible that what was really written was OR, meaning "Order
Recorded". However, one newspaper reporting on the matter, presumably
some years later, said that the letters OK had been adopted "as
a sort of [Democratic] part cry and [were] fastened upon their banners".
This does give at least some credence to the idea that OK was at
least in familiar use prior to 1840.
Like Choctaw Indian, the Wolof language (spoken in Senegal and The Gambia,
formerly The Gold Coast) has something like okeh to mean an emphatic
"yes" (it's more like waa-key in reality). Wolof has
given American English a number of words, perhaps through the African
slave trade, such as juke, honky (to mean a white man),
hipcat (or hepcat, meaning a jazz enthusiast), jive
and even dig (as in "to understand"), although it should
be noted that there is nowhere near universal agreement on these! It is
likely that okeh appeared in early black American spoken slang.
Other Languages theories
Yet more languages have similar-sounding words for "yes" or
"it is so". Liberian has oke, and Burmese has hoakeh,
for instance. Yet again, it is possible that these examples crept into
American use in small isolated areas at some time prior to 1839.
Indian Chief theory
Keokuk was an Indian chief (after whom Keokuk, in Iowa,
is named). His admirers sometimes referred to him as "Old Keokuk,
he's all right", and the initials OK, came to mean the same
orl korrect theory
The Internet fashion for condensing phrases into abbreviation certainly
not new! The 1830s saw a rise of quirky abbreviations for common phrases,
which for some reason seems to have been particularly popular in Boston.
ISBD was used to mean "it shall be done", RTBS
for "it remains to be seen" and SP for "small potatoes".
It went further,
with KY used to mean "no use" (know yuse) and an article
in the March 23rd, 1839, edition of the Boston Morning Post, saw
this produce OK, short for "all correct" (orl korrect).
This is the earliest published appearance of OK that has so far
William Richardson recorded his journey from Boston to New Orleans in
his 1815 diary. Transcriptions of the diary show "Arrived at Princeton,
a handsome little village, o.k. and at Trenton where we dined at
1p.m." - although in some have proposed that this showed the use
of the expression in 1815, the original manuscript shows that this was
actually part of some alterations that may have been added by Richardson
(or someone else), possibly even after 1840 when the term had come into
common use. Another possibility is that the writing is of a.h.,
referring to "a handsome", but there are many objections to
16th century theories
Several claims have been made to have found appearances of OK have
in 16th century manuscripts. In one instance Notes & Queries (1911)
points out that the will of Thomas Cumberland in 1565 is shown to
use OK. But more careful scrutiny shows that this is more likely
to have been the initials of the scrivener.
Books published in
1593 and 1596 also have OK included, but apparently as nouns. The
text of one (Have with You to Saffron-Walden, by Thomas Nashe,
the British author) goes "Martin is Guerra, Brown a brone-bill, &
Barrow a wheelbarrow; Ket a knight, H.N. [referring to Henry Nichols]
an O.K." As Mencken states in his supplement to The American Language,
"the meaning here is unfathomable".
Old Kinderhook theory
Martin van Buren was standing as the Democratic presidential candidate
in 1840. He had acquired the nickname of Old Kinderhook (he was
born in Kinderhook, New York). On March 24, 1840 the Democrats opened
the OK Club in Grand Street, New York City, based on the initials
of van Buren's nickname.
The expression OK
soon became the watchword of this club, and in that same year, a Democratic
newspaper equated the initials with the strivings of the party to "make
all things OK".
Cockney Orl Korrec theory
The Times, in 1939, had an article reporting that it was of Cockney origin.
The author remembered its use as an abbreviation for Orl korrec
when he was a boy in the late 19th century. However, this post-dates its
first appearance by many years.
During the American War of Independence, French sailors made "appointments"
with American girls aux quais (meaning when they were berthed at
the quayside). This theory was put forward by Britain's Daily Express
newspaper in 1940.
The Fins have a word for correct, and it is oikea. In a
1940 article, someone at the Cleveland Public Library suggested that this
may be the origin.
British Parliament theory
The same source as the Cockney theory (The Times, in 1939) pointed out
that some bills going through the House of Lords had to be read and approved
by Lords Onslow and Kilbracken, and they each initialed them - producing
the combined initials OK.
Several centuries before its first appearance, Norwegian and Danish sailors
used an Anglo-Saxon word, hogfor, which meant ready for sea.
This was frequently shortened to HG, which in turn would have
been pronounced hag-gay.
Laurence Sterne was a British author of the 18th century, and in his book
A Sentimental Journey, published in 1768, he uses the emphatic
French form of yes: O qu-oui. In an anglicised pronunciation
(oh-key), the phrase was used by some to express affirmation.
In a letter in the Vancouver Sun, in 1935, it was pointed out that
early schoolmasters would mark examination papers by adding the Latin
Omnis Korrecta, which was sometimes abbreviated to OK.
Early ship-builders would mark the timber they prepared, and the first
to be laid was marked "OK Number 1", meaning "outer
keel No. 1".
Early telegraph operators abbreviated everything, to reduce the amount
of work needed. They would use GM for "Good Morning",
GA for "Go Ahead" and so on. In 1935, Tatler, in the
Observer, suggests that they also used OK. This doesn't
stand up at all, as the telegraph post-dated the first written occurrence
and it is almost certain, in my view, that they adopted OK rather
than inventing it.
We've all heard the Scottish expression, och-aye. An author in
the Nottingham Journal in 1943 suggests that OK is simply
an adaptation of this expression. The Scottish expression derives from
och, meaning an exclamation of surprise and aye meaning
yes, and has been in existence since perhaps the 16th century.
Old English theory
In early England, the last harvest loads brought in from the fields were
known as hoacky or horkey. It was also the name given to
harvest-home, which was the feast which followed the last loads brought
in. The satisfactory completion of harvest was therefore known as hoacky,
which was soon (at least according to an article in the Daily Telegraph
in 1935) shortened to OK.
The Times printed a suggestion that the Prussian general, Schliessen (fighting
for the American colonies during the War of Independence) was properly
given the title Oberst Kommandant. All his orders were initialled
Probably the earliest suggestion comes from the Greek. The two Greek letters
omega and khi appear in a work called Geoponica in
920AD as being a magical incantation (when repeated twice) against fleas!
Obediah Kelly was an early railway freighter. He is known to have signed
bills of lading with his initials, OK, and in railway circles OK
came to mean that something had been authorised.
War-Department (or cracker) theory
During the Civil War, the US War Department bought supplies of crackers
from a company called Orrins-Kendall. Their initials appeared on
the boxes, and as the crackers were of a particularly high standard, the
letters OK became synonymous with "all right". This theory
was originally put forward in a publication called Linguist, from
the Horace Mann School for Boys in New York, although it has subsequently
appeared in a number of other publications.
multitudinous other theories
1840, American politicians used the term frequently, and dreamt up many
absurd (and often pointed) origins. Out of Kash, out of kredit, out
of klothes, all became identified with van Buren's campaign. And on
the floor of the House of Representatives, a congressman from Illinois
suggested it meant Orful Kalamity.
Since 1840, many
other explanations have been reported. The list above, although long and
fanciful, is only the tip of the iceberg!
just where did OK come from?
I will leave
the reader to come to his or her own conclusions from the above.
However, my own view is that there are bits of several of the above
etymologists and word-lovers alike seem to have an innate desire
to have a single point of origin for words. If they're unable to
find that, they like to see clearly defined lines of evolution.
My own view is that many words and phrases arise, not from single
sources, but through my own theory of "coincidental coinage",
where many disparate uses have occurred but which are brought together
by some single act.
I would suggest
that the Choctaw, and possibly even the other foreign language influences,
had resulted in small pockets of America using okeh or something
similar. This may have been the case perhaps back as far as the
17th century, but more likely the 18th.
of these examples reinforced the Democrats' use of OK to
mean Old Kinderhook, and soon the OK Club became well
known. Inevitably, the club would have become well known through
the nation's newspapers and, reinforced by folk etymologies, the
term became quickly established.
I would therefore
argue that there is no single origin of the expression, but it was
the OK Club that was responsible for bringing the expression
to a wide public arena and which could, in some ways, be said to
have at least started the trend which has continued ever since.
The above notes have been compiled by me on and off over the past few
years. Many books and Internet sources reproduce the same arguments, and
these have been one foundation, backed up by rather firmer documentary
evidence that I have found. But the major source is undoubtedly "The
American Language", by HL Mencken, in its various editions and supplements.