July 8, 2015

Case File #015.07.08: OK or OKAY

With their LOLs, BTWs, OMGs, ROTFLs, and the like, those of the Internet generation might be inclined to think they were the first to use clever initialisms as conversational shorthand, but they'd be wrong. In fact, in the 1830s—nearly 150 years before the first so-called millennials were born—the use of abbreviations in place of common phrases and expressions was all the rage among young and hip Americans, and even more popular, especially in New England, was the use of abbreviations to represent deliberate misspellings of those same phrases and expressions. Of the latter, one example has actually survived into the twenty-first century: the initialism O.K., which is now often spelled OK or okay. This one started as an abbreviation of oll korrect, a facetious spelling alteration of all correct that had the youth of the early nineteenth century LOL or ROTFL. Unlike the other similar faddish initialisms of the day, however, O.K. gained linguistic legitimacy in 1840 when the Democratic party in New York City formed the O.K. Club, with the club's name intended as an allusion to “Old Kinderhook,” the nickname of the party's 1840 presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, who was born in Kinderhook, NY. (Some suggest it was the other way around, that is, that Van Buren's supporters gave him the nickname “Old Kinderhook” to capitalize on the already popular initialism O.K. But this is the minority opinion among etymologists, lexicographers, and other logophiles.) While Van Buren lost the election, O.K. was here to stay. As early as 1841, though, the periods were often being left out of the abbreviation so that it became a true initialism, and instead of being used only as an adjective meaning “all correct” or “satisfactory, acceptable, or agreeable,” the word was now also being used as an adverb meaning “adequately or satisfactorily,” as a noun meaning “an approval or endorsement,” and as an interjection to express assent, acceptance, or enthusiastic approval. But it wasn't until around 1890 that the verb sense—that is, “to approve or authorize”—came into use, and the non-acronymic form okay didn't appear until the late 1920s (an earlier spelling, okeh, didn't catch on), which was also about the time word acquired its alternate adjectival meaning of “barely adequate” or “mediocre.”

©2015 Michael R. Gates

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