Friday, 12 March 2010

It's Awwwright

Earlier today, I was asked about the origins of the word "O.K.", which I deemed to be no big deal. Think I'd had this one down for some time, I went into a very cocky spiel about how "O.K" way an abbreviation of an old president's nickname, which he used to sign documents presented to him. Thus, to "give something the O.K." would be to give it the president's signature, and give it the go ahead.

And that's that. Problem solved. Rather, that would have been problem solved, if curiosity and self-doubt hadn't gotten the better of me. I looked up "O.K" again, and lo and behold there were a ton of alternate roots. It turns out that nobody actually knows where it came from. It's a little embarrassing to have lost a word, but we're only human. Still, that hasn't stopped people guessing, and there are currently a handful of theories still supported by various academics. I'll leave it up to you to chose which one you prefer.

For our first theory, we can take a quick look at the Greek language, which is always a fun thing to do. In Greek, the phrase "Ola Kala" means "everything's ready", and some clever-clogs thinks they used the abbreviation of it. When it comes to explaining how "O.K." first became popular in America, not Greece, the reasoning goes that "O.K." was written on the side of seaworthy Greek ships or, if you prefer, that lots of Greek people worked on building railways in America. Strange, perhaps, but it stands.

Next up, there was a time in America when it was entertaining to deliberately misspell words, in some strange attempt to mock the illiterate. This was the 18th century, you understand, before they had telly. We all had to make our own entertainment back then. Here, it's claimed that "O.K" is the hilariously misspelled "Oll Korrect", or "All Correct". Hahahahaha. Anyway, that only allows the word to spread amongst the social elite, which would have had a big impact on its contagious use, which clearly didn't happen.

There are also those who say "O.K." is a word we've borrowed from another language, but even they can't agree with each other. The first group reckon it came from the Native American language Choctaw, and the specific word was "okeh". It's nice, but the pronunciation is a little off, and it's hard to see how it could have been so influential. For this one, I might just call coincidence (alright, I'm not going to leave you to your own opinions, I'm going to tag mine on too. Just deal with it).

The other lot who want to say "O.K." is a borrowed word generally go for African languages. Wolof and Bantu both have the word "waw-kay", and Mande uses "o ke". What with the slave trade and all (way to brush over history), these linguists think it's very likely these words would have made their way to America in this manner. Looking at how both they and the Native Americans can come up with similar word makes me suspicious though. If they can do it without relating the two, what's to say the American's didn't?

Lastly, we come back to the president. Martin Van Buren was known occasionally as "Old Kinderhook", and it did appear in slogans in public. See, it's more than just my bizarre little imagination that brought out that story. One guy who did a lot of research into "O.K.", Allen Walker Read, thought it stood up pretty well as a potential root. It helps to stay on the linguist's good side, y'know.

Ultimately, the two theories Read puts forward as most likely are the president's nickname and "Oll Korrect". He puts this downs to their meaning and documented usage, but he could still be wrong. It's anyone's guess, really. I like these two explanations, mind, because they account for "O.K." being an acronym, rather than just "okay". Otherwise, what do they stand for? Maybe it's a misspelling. Maybe I'm completely wrong. Only you can finish the story, dear reader, and do it as you will. It's all O.K. by me.


No comments:

Post a Comment