Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is it Okay? No, but it's OK

Over the course of doing research for our vocabulary posts, I ran across a fascinating fact about one of the most common casual expressions in use in modern times—“okay”. Or should I say “OK”?

If I want to be 19th century, it has to be OK. “Okay” is a later form of the word, not recorded till 1919...but OK dates back to—are you ready?—1839. (Note the 1839 fashions at right):

There are dozens of explanations of the origin of OK, some more far-fetched than others (no, it didn’t come from Aux Cayes, a port in Haiti known for its rum!) The generally accepted view is that it originated in the United States in the 1830s.

It seems that in the late 1830s and ‘40s, there was a bit of a fad for creating comical abbreviations, which began in Boston in 1838 and spread across the young country. Newspapers in Boston used expressions like “OFM” (Our Finest Men) for local bigwigs and abbreviations like “NG” and “SP” (that’s “no go” and “small potatoes”, respectively.)

And then there was OK, which first appeared in print in March 1839. It was the result of the abbreviation fad combined with a concurrent fad—that of comical mispellings. Abbreviated phrases like “KY” (“know yuse”—no use) and NS (“nuff said”—which still persists today) were common…as was OW “oll wright” (all right) and its cousin, OK (“oll korrect”).

Like most fads, this one slipped into oblivion…except for OK, which for some reason caught on. Its use became widespread when it was adopted by Democratic supporters of presidential candidate Martin Van Buren as a name for their club—OK gained the additional meaning “Old Kinderhook”, the town in New York where Van Buren was born. Tammany toughs used it as their battle cry in street fights in New York City.

But Van Buren’s opponents could play that game too, and soon found unflattering meanings for OK, like “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, and Out of Klothes” and “Orfully Konfused”, among others. It became something of a game for anti-Van Buren newspapers around the country to find new versions…and thus “OK” spread across the country.

Kind of puts our "LOL" and "OMG" and other textspeak into perspective, doesn't it?

Now, to bring this back to 19th century England, I’ve got some pretty OK news: my next book has a name and release date! Look for Courtship and Curses to be hitting shelves some time in spring of 2012!


Alyssia said...

What a wonderfully interesting post! And you're right: it does bring our modern abbreviations and acronyms into a little more perspective.

Congratulations on the upcoming book release, by the way!

Marissa Doyle said...

Thanks, Alyssia!

QNPoohBear said...

wow! That's really neat. I assumed OK was modern. I know all about Van Buren haters if anyone is interested in women writers who attacked the Democrats, watch my blog for more info.

I can't wait to read Courtship and Curses. Just in time to ask for it or for a book store g/c for my birthday next year!

Marissa Doyle said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear! Isn't it funny how some expressions that sound modern aren't, and vice versa?