LINGUIST List 4.705

Tue 14 Sep 1993

Disc: OK

Editor for this issue: <>


  • , RE: 4.694 Etymology of OK
  • Paul T Kershaw, O.K.
  • , RE: 4.691 Qs: Database, Rennellese, X rules OK, Distinction
  • , 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.

    Greetings, Paul Werth.

    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

    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...

    Regards, Paul Werth

    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