All those who pose as experts in etymology tend to receive questions about certain popular words, with exotic slang and obscenities attracting the greatest attention. (The F-word is at the top of the list. Is it an acronym? No, it is not.) Beginning with my old post on copasetic, I tried to anticipate some such questions, and for a long time I have been wondering how to tell the story of OK, an object of undying interest. The excitement of this oft-repeated story has long since worn off, and only the thought that perhaps I can add nuance (as highbrows say) to the OK epic and thus partly avoid the otherwise inevitable triviality allows me to continue.
OK has been traced to numerous languages, including, Classical Greek, Finnish, Choctaw, Burmese, Irish, and Black English (Black English caught the fancy of many journalists, who in the sixties “rediscovered” Africa without going there and gained the reputation of radicals at no cost). The literature is also full of suggestions that the sources of OK have to be sought in German, French, or Danish. This guessing game presents interest for two reasons. First, it shows that many people do not realize the importance of research in historical linguistics. Not only do they risk offering conjectures without as much as a cursory look at the evidence: they do not even take the trouble to get acquainted with the views of their equally uninformed predecessors. One constantly runs into statements like: “I am surprised that it has not occurred to anyone…”, whereupon an etymology follows that was offered fifty years earlier and rehashed again and again. (Compare the review I once read of a performance of The Swan Lake. The reviewer said that this was the best performance of the ballet he could remember. I concluded that it was either the first time he had seen The Swan Lake or that he suffered from amnesia.) In my database, I have 78 citations for OK, mainly from the press, and this number could have been doubled or tripled if I had made the effort to collect all the letters on the subject printed in newspapers; I availed myself of only some of them. Variations on the same hypotheses keep surfacing again and again. Second, even specialists may not always realize that in dealing with a word like OK, a plausible derivation presupposes two steps. OK spread through the United States like wildfire in the early 1840’s and stayed. Regardless of whether the lending language is believed to be Choctaw or Finnish, the etymologist has to explain why OK became popular when it did. A similar approach is required for all slang and for many stylistically neutral words. Any innovation, be it bikini, recycling, a redistribution of voting districts, or a neologism, comes from a smart individual and is either rejected or accepted by the public. If a word has been rejected, we usually know little or nothing about its history (a stillborn has a short biography). But if it has survived, we should explain where it originated and what contributed to its longevity. Suppose OK is Greek. Why then was its radiation center the United States? And why in the forties of the 19th century? No etymology of OK will be valid while such questions remain unanswered.
In our case, the answers are known. Today we confuse one another with cryptic acronyms like LOL “laugh out loud” and AWOL (here a gloss is not needed). Linguistic tastes do not seem to have changed since the 1830’s. Facts give credence to the belief that OK stands for oll korrect, but not to the legend that this was the spelling used by Andrew Jackson. Although the 7th President of the United States would not have been hired as a spelling master even by a rural school, anecdotes about his gross illiteracy have little foundation in fact. The craze for k, as it was called (Kash, Kongress, and so forth), added to the staying power of the abbreviation OK. But OK would probably have disappeared along with dozens of others if it had not been used punningly by the supporters of Van Buren, the next president, born in Old Kinderhook, New York. To be sure, it could still have vanished once the campaign was over, but it did not. It even became the most famous American coinage, understood far beyond the borders of the United States. This is the account one finds in dictionaries, but dictionaries, quite naturally, do not dwell on the history of the search, which entailed decades of studying documents, broken friendships, and the making of a great reputation.
It was Allen Walker Read who reconstructed the Old Kinderhook link in the rise of OK, and his discovery became a sensation: first The Saturday Review published an article by him (1941), and years later an interview devoted to OK appeared in New Yorker. Read is also the author of many other excellent works, but few people outside academia have heard about them. At the end of one of his article on OK (he brought out four major articles on the subject and several addenda, all of them published in the journal American Speech), Read expressed his surprise that the origin of OK, which everybody must have known in Van Buren’s days, was forgotten so soon. However, the case is not unique. People regularly forget the pronunciations that were current only a generation ago and the events that led to the coining of words.
Read had to dispose of the possible pre-1839 existence of OK. And this is where personal animosities came in. One of the editors of the Dictionary of American English was Woodford A. Heflin, an excellent specialist, whose contributions clarified a good deal in the emergence of OK. But he put too much trust in the following line found in the journal of William Richardson, a businessman from Boston. In his detailed description of a journey to New Orleans (1815), Richardson wrote: “Arrived in Princeton, a handsome little village, 15 miles from N Brunswick, ok & at Trenton, where we dined at 1 P.M.” The ok & part makes no sense. Richardson may have begun a sentence that he did not finish, or a scribal error may have occurred. The amount of interlining and correction in the manuscript is considerable. Even if the sentence can be understood without emendation, the mysterious ok need not mean what it means to us, for the well-educated Richardson would hardly have infused a piece of low slang after mentioning N Brunswick. This was Read’s conclusion, but Heflin insisted that the 1815 occurrence of OK was the earliest we have. The strife that ensued soured the relations between the two scholars. Heflin went public and fought what he called an incorrect etymology of OK in the pages of American Speech. Read responded (the journal showed laudable impartiality and let both opponents express their views). The battle was fought in the sixties, long after Read’s initial article appeared in The Saturday Review.
Read examined the manuscript of Richardson’s journal, but to the best of my knowledge, he never mentioned the fact that he had not done it alone. This is what Frederic C. Cassidy wrote in 1981 (American Speech 56, 1981, p. 271): “After many attempts to track down the diary, Read and I at last discovered that it is owned by the grandson of the original writer, Professor L[awrence] Richardson, Jr., of the Department of Classic Studies at Duke University. Through his courtesy we were able to examine this manuscript carefully, to make greatly enlarged photographs of it, and to become convinced (as is Richardson) that, whatever the marks in the manuscript are, they are not OK. The Richardson diary does not constitute evidence for the currency of OK before 1839.” What an anticlimax! I only don’t understand why Read did not say all of it himself. In 1981 he was an active scholar guarding his priority most carefully, and there is no doubt that if Cassidy’s report had not been accurate, he would have made his disagreement known.
Here ends my story of OK, nuance and all.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”