OK

"OK" (/; spelling variations include "okay", "O.K.", "ok") is an English word denoting approval, acceptance, agreement, assent, acknowledgment, or a sign of indifference. "OK" is frequently used as a loanword in other languages. It has been described as the most frequently spoken or written word on the planet.[1] The origins of the word are disputed.

As an adjective, "OK" principally means "adequate" or "acceptable" as a contrast to "bad" ("The boss approved this, so it is OK to send out"); it can also mean "mediocre" when used in contrast with "good" ("The french fries were great, but the burger was just OK"). It fulfills a similar role as an adverb ("Wow, you did OK for your first time skiing!"). As an interjection, it can denote compliance ("OK, I will do that"), or agreement ("OK, that is fine"). It can mean "assent" when it is used as a noun ("the boss gave her OK to the purchase") or, more colloquially, as a verb ("the boss OKed the purchase"). "OK", as an adjective, can express acknowledgment without approval.[2] As a versatile discourse marker or back-channeling item, it can also be used with appropriate voice tone to show doubt or to seek confirmation ("OK?" or "Is that OK?").[3]

Proposed etymologies

Numerous explanations for the origin of the expression have been suggested, but few have been discussed seriously by linguists. The following proposals have found mainstream recognition.

Boston abbreviation fad

The etymology that most reference works provide today is based on a survey of the word's early history in print: a series of six articles by Allen Walker Read,[4] in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11] He tracked the spread and evolution of the word in American newspapers and other written documents, and later throughout the rest of the world. He also documented controversy surrounding OK and the history of its folk etymologies, both of which are intertwined with the history of the word itself. Read argues that, at the time of the expression's first appearance in print, a broader fad existed in the United States of "comical misspellings" and of forming and employing acronyms, themselves based on colloquial speech patterns:

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, "our first men," and used expressions like NG, "no go," GT, "gone to Texas," and SP, "small potatoes." Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, "oll wright."[12]

The general fad is speculated to have existed in spoken or informal written U.S. English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK's original presentation as "all correct" was later varied with spellings such as "Oll Korrect" or even "Ole Kurreck".

The term appears to have achieved national prominence in 1840, when supporters of the Democratic political party claimed during the 1840 United States presidential election that it stood for "Old Kinderhook", a nickname for the Democratic president and candidate for reelection, Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, New York. "Vote for OK" was snappier than using his Dutch name.[13] In response, Whig opponents attributed OK, in the sense of "Oll Korrect," to Andrew Jackson's bad spelling. The country-wide publicity surrounding the election appears to have been a critical event in OK's history, widely and suddenly popularizing it across the United States.

Read proposed an etymology of "OK" in "Old Kinderhook" in 1941.[14] The evidence presented in that article was somewhat sparse, and the connection to "Oll Korrect" not fully elucidated. Various challenges to the etymology were presented; e.g., Heflin's 1962 article.[15] However, Read's landmark 1963–1964 papers silenced most of the skepticism. Read's etymology gained immediate acceptance, and is now offered without reservation in most dictionaries.[16] Read himself was nevertheless open to evaluating alternative explanations:

Some believe that the Boston newspaper's reference to OK may not be the earliest. Some are attracted to the claim that it is of American-Indian origin. There is an Indian word, okeh, used as an affirmative reply to a question. Mr Read treated such doubting calmly. “Nothing is absolute,” he once wrote, “nothing is forever.”[17]

Choctaw

The folk singer Pete Seeger sang that "OK" was of Choctaw Indian origin,[18][19] as the dictionaries of the time tended to agree. Three major American reference works (Webster's, New Century, Funk & Wagnalls) cited the Choctaw etymology as the probable origin until as late as 1961.[18]

The earliest written evidence for the Choctaw word "okeh" is provided in work by the missionaries Cyrus Byington and Alfred Wright in 1825. These missionaries ended many sentences in their translation of the Bible with the particle "okeh", meaning "it is so". "Okeh" was given as an alternative spelling of "okay" in the 1913 Webster's.[20]

Byington's Dictionary of the Choctaw Language confirms the ubiquity of the "okeh" particle,[21] and his Grammar of the Choctaw Language notes the particle -keh is an "affirmative contradistinctive", with the "distinctive" o- prefix.[22]

Subsequent Choctaw spelling books de-emphasized the spellings lists in favor of straight prose, and they made use of the particle[,] but they too never included it in the word lists or discussed it directly. The presumption was that the use of particle "oke" or "hoke" was so common and self-evident as to preclude any need for explanation or discussion for either its Choctaw or non-Choctaw readership.[18]

The Choctaw language was one of the languages spoken at this time in the South-Eastern United States by a tribe with significant contact with African slaves.[23] The major language of trade in this area, Mobilian Jargon, was based on Choctaw-Chickasaw, two Muskogean-family languages. This language was used, in particular, for communication with the slave-owning[24][25] Cherokee (an Iroquoian-family language).[26][27] For the three decades prior to the Boston abbreviation fad, the Choctaw had been in extensive negotiation with the US government,[28] after having fought alongside them at the Battle of New Orleans.

Arguments for a more Southern origin for the word note the tendency of English to adopt loan words in language contact situations, as well as the ubiquity of the "okeh" particle. Similar particles exist in native language groups distinct from Iroquoian (Algonquian, ekosi") and its usefulness in conversation (a verbal equivalent to nodding one's head) as the main reasons for its rapid spread among English speakers.

West African

A verifiable early written attestation of the particle 'kay' is from transcription by Smyth (1784) of a North Carolina slave not wanting to be flogged by a European visiting America:

Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe;...

— [29]

A West African (Mande and/or Bantu) etymology has been argued in scholarly sources, tracing the word back to the Wolof and Bantu word waw-kay or the Mande (aka "Mandinke" or "Mandingo") phrase o ke.

David Dalby first made the claim that the particle "OK" could have African origins in the 1969 Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture. His argument was reprinted in various newspaper articles between 1969 and 1971.[30] This suggestion has also been mentioned more recently by Joseph Holloway, who argued in the 1993 book The African Heritage of American English (co-written with a retired missionary) that various West African languages have near-homophone discourse markers with meanings such as "yes indeed" or which serve as part of the back-channeling repertoire.[3][31] Though Frederic Cassidy challenged Dalby's claims, asserting that there is no documentary evidence that any of these African-language words had any causal link with its use in the American press,[citation needed] one can certainly wonder at the fact that this standard of written proof does not account for the illiteracy in which the West African speakers were kept during the period of slavery in question.

The West African hypothesis had not been accepted by 1981 by any etymologists,[30][32][33] yet has since appeared in scholarly sources published by linguists and non-linguists alike.[34]

Alternative etymologies

A large number of origins have been proposed. Some of them are thought to fall into the category of folk etymology and are proposed based merely on apparent similarity between OK and one or another phrase in a foreign language with a similar meaning and sound. Some examples are:

  • A corruption from the speech of the large number of descendants of Scottish and Ulster Scots (Scots-Irish) immigrants to North America, of the common Scots phrase och aye ("oh yes").[35]
  • A borrowing of the Greek phrase όλα καλά (óla kalá), meaning "all good".[36]
Other Languages
العربية: أوكي
تۆرکجه: اوکئی (Ok)
বাংলা: ওকে
Boarisch: Basst scho
català: OK
čeština: OK (souhlas)
dansk: Okay
Deutsch: Okay
Ελληνικά: OK
español: OK
Esperanto: Okej
euskara: OK
فارسی: اوکی
français: OK (expression)
한국어: Okay
հայերեն: Օքեյ
हिन्दी: ओके
hrvatski: OK
Bahasa Indonesia: Oke
interlingua: Okay
italiano: Okay
עברית: או. קיי.
Latina: Okay
latviešu: OK
lietuvių: O.K.
magyar: O.K.
Nederlands: Oké
日本語: OK (表現)
norsk: Ok (ord)
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Okey
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਓਕੇ
Papiamentu: Ok
polski: OK
português: OK
română: Okay
русский: Okay
sicilianu: OK
Simple English: OK
српски / srpski: Okej
suomi: Okei
svenska: Okej
తెలుగు: ఓకే
ไทย: OK
українська: ОК
Tiếng Việt: OK
中文: OK