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Flash Fiction Competition.

Okay crops up a lot in fiction writing, particularly in dialogue and first-person narrative. Where does it come from, and how should it be spelled?

Origin of ‘Okay’

Many etymologies have been suggested over the years for okay; almost every historical conjunction of the letters O and K (or their corresponding syllables) seems to have been presented as a possible origin for the word. The Greeks, the Choctaw Indians, the Finns, the Germans, the Scottish (“och aye”) and many others have all had the greasy finger of amateur etymology pointed in their direction.

The most widely accepted theory comes from the lexicographer and (professional) etymologist Allen Walker Read. His research showed that OK—in its short form—first cropped up in a Boston newspaper in 1839. At the time, there was a fashion for comical misspellings, and this first appearance of OK stood for “Orl Korrect”.

A year later, President Martin Van Buren’s reelection campaign picked up on this usage. Born in Kinderhook, Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook”; his supporters spotted the opportunity, and urged people to vote for OK. (He lost the election.)

A second theory that’s worth mentioning suggests that the word comes from the African language Wolof, which had an impact on English primarily through slavery. In Wolof, the word waw-kay means something like “yes, indeed”, and this word shows signs of usage in English dating back to the eighteenth century. This is a convincing argument for the origin of okay, and its lack of acceptance compared to the “Orl Korrect” theory may simply be down to a lack of written evidence tracing this evolution. (Slaves didn’t write for newspapers.)

Edit: for more on the Choctaw theory, see comments below.

Usage

People generally seem to write Okay in one of four ways, of which only the first two are valid:

  • okay – correct
  • OK – correct, but see note below
  • Okay – incorrect (the first letter should only be capitalised at the beginning of a sentence)
  • O.K. – incorrect (no need for the points)

There’s no fixed rule as to whether you should use OK or okay in your writing. It’s a matter of personal style (although it may well get overridden by a publisher’s house style). Personally, I prefer okay. It looks more like a word, so it’s less jarring on the page.

(OK would also be incorrect—or very informal—usage if the African origin theory is true; in this case, OK would be a false acronym, a simple phonetic shortening of the correct okay.)

10 Comments on “OK or Okay?”

  1. Chahta Says:

    You missed one!

    There are three candidate etymologies which are widely regarded as the primary candidates for okay’s derivation. The first has been extensively argued for by Read; the remaining two differ materially from other candidates in that they:

    * have widespread verifiable pre-existing documented usage,
    * have verifiable geographic overlaps with okay’s first documented instances,
    * have equivalent meanings,
    * do not fit over-neatly into contemporaneous or subsequent political or cultural circumstances, and
    * are remarkably similar in pronunciation to okay (having due regard to the danger of false coincidence, which is endemic to colloquial etymology)

    They are:

    1. the acronym of the “comically misspelled” oll korrect
    2. the Choctaw word okeh
    3. the Wolof and Bantu word waw-kay or the Mande (aka “Mandinke” or “Mandingo”) phrase o ke

    Andrew Jackson first heard the Choctaw usage during the War of 1812 and used it from then on. Woodrow Wilson was strongly in favor of this etymology also.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hi Chahta,

    I did briefly namecheck the Choctaws near the beginning of the post, but you’re right: perhaps I didn’t give that theory enough space. From what I’ve read, though, there doesn’t seem to be much solid evidence for the Choctaw origin.

    (Or maybe I was just put off by the fact that the Wikipedia article you’ve quoted seems to be using a Peter, Paul, and Mary song as a source…)

    People wanting to read more about the Choctaw theory could do worse than to read at least part of this page from the University of Illinois.

    Actually, I suspect that there is some truth in both the Choctaw and the African theories—there’s no rule to say that a word can only have one origin. The Read “Orl Korrect” theory—especially the part about “Old Kinderhook”—feels to me more like a symptom of already-present usage than it does a possibility of origin, but then again, I’m not even an amateur etymologist.

  3. Jim Fay Says:

    The song by Peter, Paul and Mary saying that “Choctaw gave us the word ‘okay'” was not intended to be taken as scholarly research. It, like the “Okeh” record labels that originally had an Indian head logo, the “Okeh sauce” bottles with the Choctaw etymology on the label, the 1840 OK lapel pins and the many well known items of folklore documented as explicitly and incontrovertibly as possible that “OK” or “okeh” was widely regarded as a loanword from Choctaw. Regardless of what the academics have to say about the ‘correct’ etymology, for over 150 years English speakers have perceived “O.K.” as a Choctaw expression and have intentionally and explicitly used it in popular usage (and song) that way. That statement is simply not open to question. “OK” is one of the most widely used expressions in the world, but in many cultures it is given the Choctaw spelling “okeh.”

    By the same token, the common statement that there is no scholarly support for the Choctaw etymology is simply not correct. Alan Walker Read offers explicit support for the Choctaw etymology from, among others, 1) a professor of English and “excellent scholar” well versed in Choctaw, 2) perhaps the premier student of Choctaw history, president of the Constitutional Convention instrumental in creating the state of Oklahoma and subsequently the first governor of that state, 3) “a reputable etymologist” and “prominent member of the American Philological Association” 4) a President of the United States and author of a 5-volume A History of the American People. But, Read dismisses those individuals Indian lovers and,although he offers not one iota of evidence to refute these scholars, says that “the weight of the evidence is conclusively against” the Choctaw etymology.

    The evidence he offers for his etymology “Old Kinderhook” is no stronger than it would be for hundreds of similar off-the-wall acronyms such as “Out of Kash” or “Orful Konfused.” And he bases his etymology very heavily on speculation about the OK Boys while ignoring the very widely documented fact that their defining characteristic was their interest (obsession) with Indian words, regalia, practices, etc.

    And finally “OK’ (and its later equivalent “alright”) is used semantically and syntactically as a particle in ways that are unique to it in English but exactly the way it has always been used in Choctaw. This is according to a well known 1879 Choctaw grammar. First, it is used as an “objective interjection” to get the attention of the listener: “OK, let’s get started.” Second, it is used as an “affirmative contradistinctive” meaning “it is so and not otherwise.” In other words, it is often used to emphasize a statement made in the face of conflicting information: “Oh, we won the game OK, but there was no there one to see it.” What other English word is ever used in these or similar ways?

  4. mollymooly Says:

    @Jim Fay:
    “What other English word is ever used in these or similar ways?”

    How about “all right” or “fine”?

  5. bleh Says:

    I think that OK would be used in the way you’d say “Are you OK?” and okay is when you sa acceptable, such as; “Okay, then. I’ll do that.” 😀

  6. Kazar Says:

    Well, I agree. I believe “OK” (not “ok”) is correct. But “okay” looks better.

  7. John More Says:

    I’m pretty convinced that this expression is a phonetic corruption of the French expression “au quai”, pronounced OK. When French dockers would received a shipment of goods off a ship, they would be on the dock or ‘quai’, the most natural way to inform the person operating the unloading device (pulley and net or whatever) would be to shout OK. That is to say, the good are now on the ground, you can stop lowering them.

  8. manikandan Says:

    i prefer “okay”

  9. Oscar Kaattari Says:

    As you can see, my initials are O.K. I have no middle name so……I’ve had some fun with it

  10. Karinta Namari Says:

    wait…you broke your own rule. You said not to capitalize ‘okay’ except for when it is at the beginning of a sentence, but then you capitalized it in the sentence before that.
    i personally like okay rather than OK 🙂

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