OK, but what does it mean?

Okay, OK is the most frequently used word, especially post-internet revolution. But what does it mean? On the internet it means ‘go on’, ‘submit’, ‘save’, ‘next.’ ‘Alright’, ‘well’, ‘go on’, or ‘fine’ in daily speech. Was this always the case? Where does okay come from?

The accepted etymology of the word gives OK as the abbreviation of Old Kinderhook, the nickname of the eight president of the United States, Martin Van Buren (1782–1862; in office 1837–1841). The name sounds so Dutch, right? Van Buren was the first American president who wasn’t of English, Irish, Scottish, or Welsh descent. In fact the only American president who did not have English as his first language, for he was Dutch. Some other prominent presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush also had Dutch ancestry, but none like Van Buren, who grew up speaking Dutch in the village of Kinderhook, New York and never lost his distinctive Dutch accent.

Photograph of the late Martin Van Buren by Mathew Brady from circa 1855-1858

Martin Van Buren was nicknamed Old Kinderhook in reference to the village where he grew up. In the presidential election campaign of 1840, the Democratic Party candidate Van Buren and his supporters used OK as an election slogan. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, one group within the party, The Democratic O.K. Club, gave the abbreviation its currency. Other sources claim that Van Buren used it as a slogan back in the 1836 campaign, which brought him to power. However, this etymology, which was established by Allen Walker Read and accepted by the greatest dictionary of English language, is contested.

The folk singer Pete Seeger sang in the sixties:

‘You know this language that we speak,
is part German, Latin and part Greek
Celtic and Arabic all in a heap,
well amended by the people in the street.
Choctaw gave us the word “okay”‘

In the sixties the widely accepted etymology of okay related it to the Choctaw ‘okeh.’ Until 1961, the Webster dictionary gave the following etymology for the word: ‘Prob. fr. Choctaw okeh it is so and not otherwise.’ The Choctaw etymology of OK goes back to 1825. The substantial treatment of ‘okey’ can be found in a Choctaw Grammar from 1870. According to the grammar, it meant ‘it is so and in no other way’ used as an interjection to get the attention of the user. When spoken more quietly it meant ‘thank you.’

In the 1960s, Allen Read, a Columbia University professor and the editor of the scholarly American Speech journal, was trying to establish a different etymology, based on his discovery about Martin Van Buren and the Democratic O.K. Club. Some experts disagreed with Read, for instance the editor of the Dictionary of American English (DAE), who published a paper in American Speech. He argued that “Old Kinderhook” was not the origin of the expression and that it was not a significant component of the etymology. In turn, Read published six papers in American Speech between 1963-1964.

Jim Fay, an American English etymology specialist, presented plausible evidence to reestablish the native American etymology of OK. Fay argued that Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States between 1829–1837, was the one gave the word its currency. According to Fay, OK was a slogan standing for ‘orl korrect’, a humorous form of ‘all correct’ or ‘Oll Korrect’. Jackson established his career in the frontier zone and the word OK is attested several times in his papers. Choctaw was the lingua franca of the southern and western frontier, which played an important role in the shaping of American political culture. Another frontier notable was John Jacob Astor, the first American millionaire, who owed his wealth to fur trade, which put him in contact with Native Americans. Astor used the word OK to confirm business transactions from 1839 until his death in 1848.

Andrew Jackson photographed on April 15, 1845 by Mathew Brady

Fay argued that Read only acknowledged evidence about Choctaw etymology in order to refute it. Allen Read treated the evidence as the folklore of the word. Fay argued that Read preferred the Van Buren etymology because it represented the language of ‘godliness and civilization’ as opposed to Choctaw, which was associated with drunkenness, ignorance and immorality.

Whether you accept the Van Buren or Choctaw etymology, it is okay!

One Comment on “OK, but what does it mean?”

  1. phi16 says:

    Very interesting. The evolution will continue especially on the Internet. We’re using ‘kk’ in chat which I’ve taken to mean an enthusiastic OK!

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