LINGUIST List 4.705

Tue 14 Sep 1993

Disc: OK

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , RE: 4.694 Etymology of OK
  2. Paul T Kershaw, O.K.
  3. , RE: 4.691 Qs: Database, Rennellese, X rules OK, Distinction
  4. , Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK

Message 1: RE: 4.694 Etymology of OK

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 93 16:30 MET
From: <>
Subject: RE: 4.694 Etymology of OK

An expansion on my earlier rather vague note about the attempt to argue
an African origin for O.K. I've managed to find my original source for
the information, which was an article in the London Times of July 19,
1969, by David Dalby (Reader in West African Languages, SOAS, U of London).
There is apparently independent evidence of the importance of Wolof as a
lingua franca among American slaves, and some of the foodstuffs traded
along the West African coast have entered the English vocab as Wolof loans
(Dalby cites banana and yam). There are other examples in this article than
those I cited: 'dig' in the 'understand' or 'appreciate' sense seems like
Wolof 'dega', 'to understand'; 'jive', in its original sense of 'talk
misleadingly' (Don't jive me, man), finds a parallel in Wolof 'jev', 'to
talk disparagingly'; there's a Wolof verb 'hipi', meaning 'to open one's
eyes', which with the agentive verbal suffix 'kat', gives 'hipikat', 'one
whose eyes are open'. And if the explanation of an African origin for
such a quintessential Americanism as OK isn't enough of a cultural shock,
Dalby also suggests that the positive and negative interjections uh-huh
and uh-uh also have an African origin. He says that these kinds of inter-
jections are particularly common in Africa, and points out that not only
are they more common in American English than in British English, they're
also more common in Afrikaans than in European Dutch!

As to all that research published in American Speech, it is of course
research into the earliest *printed* occurrences of the form OK. However,
(i) in almost all cases, spoken occurrence precedes written occurrence,
sometimes by centuries;
(ii) one wouldn't expect slave usages to be written down in print, nor to
be spoken, and even fashionable, unless they'd been around for so long,
and adopted into white speech too, that their origin was no longer
remembered or marked as 'slave talk'. (In the case of jazz terms, nearly
another hundred years went by before *they* became fashionable, and adopted
into white talk - many still aren't, really);
(iii) this being so, if the expression OK was around in speech, used by
black and white alike, but wasn't yet fashionable, and hadn't got into
print yet, then given that it sounded like letters (it's also often spelt
'okay', of course), and there was that craze for funny acronyms that one of
the correspondents mentioned, then OK was a natural. It would then also have
been normal (a) to suggest a humorous origin (the Andrew Jackson story) and/
or (b) to jump on the bandwagon and try to commandeer the expression for
political purposes.

By way of a footnote, the Andrew Jackson story was immortalised for
generations of obsessive sauce-bottle readers in Britain by being printed
on the label of a brand of brown sauce called (you guessed it!) O.K. Sauce.

Paul Werth.
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Message 2: O.K.

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 1993 18:29:10 O.K.
From: Paul T Kershaw <>
Subject: O.K.

It seems plausible to accept that newspaper and cultural playfulness might have
coined O.K. from "Oll Korrekt" ("all correct"), and in light of the dearth of
earlier citations, this may indeed be the true etymology. But I would like
also to point out that cultural playfulness created "Reading, Writing, and
Arithmetic" from the "three R's" (Reading, Ritin', 'Rithmatic), which are
originally Rhetoric, Reasoning, and ?? -- I can never remember the third one.
THe difference between this and O.K., of course, is that we have earlier
citations (at least, I think we do, or is this yet another cruel hoax a la 400
Eskimo words for snow?). Also, were phrases like "All Correct" common for that
time period? It seems forced, not natural, English to my ears (but then, slang
usually sounds strange years after the fact).

-- Paul Kershaw, MiSU
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Message 3: RE: 4.691 Qs: Database, Rennellese, X rules OK, Distinction

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 93 15:42 MET
From: <>
Subject: RE: 4.691 Qs: Database, Rennellese, X rules OK, Distinction

In reply to Rick Russom's query about 'X rules OK', to get the syntax, you
should punctuate it thusly: 'X rules, OK?' Inother words, it's a
belligerent affirmation by (always, in my experience) a young, male group:
examples include 'Bovver boys rule, OK?' (one of the earliest, this),
'Brixton boot boys rule, OK?', 'Skinheads rule, OK?', including also
various sporting groups, e.g. 'Manchester City rule, OK?' (but interest-
ingly, never 'Henley Punting & Sculling Club rule, OK?' or 'Cheltenham
Bridge Association rules, OK?'). Of course, the device has spawned many
variants. My personal favourites are: 'Maggie rules UK?' (note the missing
comma - highly significant) and 'Dyslexia lures, KO?'.

On M. Sasaki's heartfelt plea about hearing the difference between 'can'
and 'can't', a not very helpful recommendation would be to confine him or
herself to British English, where they actually have a different vowel.
The fact is that native speakers, both American and non-American, manage
most of the time, and the answer is that they rely on CONTEXTUAL clues,
rather than phonetic ones. However, it's certainly an interesting question
and I wouldn't be too surprised if there were subtle phonetic clues, such
as vowel lengthening, at play here. In which case, we'd have to explain
why it is that native speakers do sometimes manage to get it wrong...

Paul Werth
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Message 4: Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK

Date: Tue, 14 Sep 1993 10:16:33 Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK
From: <>
Subject: Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK

With regard to Paul Werth's comments on the possible Wolof origin of OK, I
think this was discussed on the Linguist List about a year and a half ago,
in conjunction with a discussion of the origin of "honkie."
I would like to add a few things to his comments. First, Wolof (West Atlantic,
 Niger-Congo) is spoken in Senegal and Gambia, not in Ghana (former colonial
name up to 1957: Gold Coast). David Dalby is the SOAS linguist who wrote
the article Werth refers to. If anyone would like the references I can
furnish them. The Wolof for -yes- is 'waaw' 'waaw kay' is an emphatic
form. 'gaa' means -people- which, when used with the definite marker,
could provide a basis for the phonetic form Werth refers to 'gaa yi' -the
people. The word for -red- is 'xonq', and white people (red people in Wolof
and many, many other African languages) are sometimes referred to as -red
ears- or 'xonq nopp' (a possible etymology of honkie.) The agent suffix
in Wolof is '-kat'rather than -ki, which some think is the origin of 'cat' in
such expressions as -jazz cat- or -cool cat.

Fiona Mc Laughlin
University of Kansas
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