LINGUIST List 4.694

Mon 13 Sep 1993

Disc: Etymology of OK

Editor for this issue: <>


  • Sally Thomason, OK
  • "david joseph kathman", Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK
  • Steven Schaufele, Y'all, OK
  • Paul T Kershaw, O.K. etymology

    Message 1: OK

    Date: Sat, 11 Sep 93 09:36:26 -0OK
    From: Sally Thomason <>
    Subject: OK

    About the history of O.K.: Allen Walker Read did definitively establish the source of O.K. as Old Kinderhook, from the campaign of Martin Van Buren; but then his arch-enemy, a dictionary editor, came up with an attestation that pre-dated the campaign. Read then definitively established the source as "oll korrect", with an attestation a few months earlier in the same year as the arch-enemy's -- March, 1839. Read discusses the debate with some passion in a New Yorker profile of Sept. 4, 1989. He also discusses the matter briefly in his LACUS presidential address, LACUS 14:5-17 (1988). He strongly disapproves of other suggestions, including those from African language(s) and/or Native American language(s). But if -- as he claims -- his 1839 attestation of O.K. is the earliest, his oll korrect etymology would be hard to impeach. (Both the odd spelling of the phrase and the abbreviation to O.K., not to mention the meaning, are accounted for convincingly in the context of the times -- apparently newspapers were full of such cute-isms. The same can't be said of the Old Kinderhook etymology.)

    Message 2: Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK

    Date: Sat, 11 Sep 93 14:25:20 CDRe: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK
    From: "david joseph kathman" <>
    Subject: Re: 4.686 Uptalk, Y'all, OK

    Just a note about the ongoing debate about the origin of O.K.:

    The excerpt from the Funk book posted by Vicki Fromkin only gives part of the story, as does the posting which gave citations for three 1964 American Speech articles by Allen Walker Read. In addition to the articles by Read cited by, Read published three articles the previous year (1963) in American Speech as well, entitled "The First Stage in the History of "O.K."", "The Second Stage in the History of "O.K."", and "Could Andrew Jackson Spell?" (this last a refutation of the widespread but demonstrably erroneous belief that O.K. originated from Jackson's misspelling "oll korrect"). In these articles Read reports on further research undertaken after the 1941 article cited by the Funks (and then posted by Fromkin), showing that though the term first gained wide acceptance in the 1840 presidential election when it was taken over as an abbreviation for "Old Kinderhook", it actually originated in Boston as part of a craze for comical abbreviations in 1838-39. This craze started in the summer of 1838, and Read documents it with dozens upon dozens of citations from the Boston press. The craze started with acronyms such as "O.F.M" for "Our First Men" (a very popular phrase at the time), "N.G." for "No Go", "S.P." for "Small Potatoes", "G.T." for "Gone to Texas", and many more. The first printed use of "o.k." found by Read is in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, in which it is used in a humorous context and explicitly glossed as "all correct". This was part of a turn the acronym craze had taken toward using comical misspellings as the basis for the initials, including "K.G." for "no go" ("Know Go") and "K.Y." for "no use" ("Know Yuse"). This was undoubtedly done to increase the "in-group" status of the acronyms as they gained wider use, somewhat similar to the Cockney rhyming slang of today. In any case, as Read documents, "O.K." had spread to New York by the summer of 1839 and the New Orleans by the fall, in both cases prompting newspaper articles (quoted extensively by Read) remarking on and explaining the acronym craze, sometimes glossing "O.K." as "all correct", sometimes leaving it unglossed. By the election year of 1840, the term was well established in the speech (or at least the writing) of the literati of the day, and was taken over as an abbreviation for "Old Kinderhook", the nickname given to Martin van Buren, the Democratic candidate for President. This use in connection with a Presidential campaign gave "O.K." much wider currency than it had before, but Read provides evidence that its acronymic origin the previous year was still well known and in fact used for political purposes by newspaper editors during the campaign. The story about Andrew Jackson originating the term, in fact, originated during this campaign, but Read argues (convincingly, I think) that this was mudslinging pure and simple, and that Jackson had nothing to do with it. In the 1964 article "The Folklore of "O.K."", Read traces the development of the dozens of folk etymologies of O.K. that began to spring up in the 1800's (and continue to spring up today), and concludes that they are all wishful thinking without any evidence to support them.

    I know this is a long posting, but I thought the record should be set straight.

    Dave Kathman

    Message 3: Y'all, OK

    Date: Sat, 11 Sep 1993 16:12:09 Y'all, OK
    From: Steven Schaufele <>
    Subject: Y'all, OK

    Concerning the origin of 'O.K.', Vicki Fromkin in LINGUIST 4-686 quotes the entertaining summary of Alan Walker Reed's original paper on the subject given by Charles Earle Funk and Charles Earle Funk, Jr., according to which the original reference 'was to a political organization supporting the candidacy of Martin Van Buren for a second term in the White House. The members called themselves the Democratic O.K. Club, taking the initials from Old Kinderhook, a title bestowed upon Van Buren from the name of the village, Kinderhook, in the valley of the Hudson where he was born.' However, there is a complication. Reed, in some of the subsequent research listed by Bob Krovetz in the same posting, subsequently found out that the abbreviation (?) 'O.K.' had already been in existence for a year or two as an abbreviation of 'Oll Korrect', as noted by Robert Wachal. (Reed provides several examples, some very extensive, of the use of initialisms in the slang of the upper-middle classes of the East Coast in the first half of the 19th century, often with further embellished/obscured by deliberate misspellings. As Reed makes clear, 'O.K.' for 'Oll Korrect' for 'All correct' makes perfect sense in this cultural context.) Thus, both explanations are in fact 'Oll Korrect': the original usage encouraged and in turn was encouraged by the political usage in 1840.

    As to 'y'all', Anne Gilman reports that 'the abbreviated form of "you-all" is considered not only appropriate but necessary from southern Maryland to northern San Antonio'. There is however, i believe, one detail of its usage which she fails to mention (if i've got this wrong, Anne -- or any other true southerners -- please correct me!). As i understand it, 'y'all' is an explicitly plural pronoun, existing alongside 'you' which is restricted to singular referents and thus serves the purpose 'thou/thee' once served alongside the explicitly plural 'you'.

    Dr. Steven Schaufele (who after 16 years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign still regrets no longer living in MARYLAND)

    Message 4: O.K. etymology

    Date: Sun, 12 Sep 1993 01:28:21 O.K. etymology
    From: Paul T Kershaw <>
    Subject: O.K. etymology

    On the etymology of O.K.: I've heard the Read explanation before, although I must admit that I haven't read the original articles, and I've never been convinced that the association of the initials of Old Kinderhooks (or Oll Korrekt, for that matter) with O.K. is sufficient evidence of an etymological relation. Even now, or perhaps particularly now, it is the habit of politicians to associate some popular concept or word with their campaign. It is, in fact, part of the campaigning process (a recent example, on the negative side, was Nixon's Committee to RE-Elect the President, CREEP). So if O.K. was common slang at the time, then it is natural to think that one or both sides of a presidential campaign might try to exploit the meaning of the slang with some phrase related to them. I have read (although I don't have the source off-hand, so I may be wrong) that O.K. has been documented in print a few years before the presidential campaign in question, which casts a shadow of doubt on the etymology.

    On the other hand, the idea that it could have originated from a foreign word (like Choctaw) or from pidgin/creole is problematic from an orthographic standpoint: when we borrow words, we usually don't spell them as if they were acronyms. It's possible, though, that we first borrowed the word, and then began spelling it like an acronym when it was associated with Ol' Kinderhooks.

    My own etymology, which I have never seen anywhere but which seems to me equally plausible: 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.

    -- Paul Kershaw, MichSU, KershawPStudent.MSU.Edu