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Commentary: OK, OK

By Paua LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

The expression OK is unquestionably the world's best-known Americanism. Since its birth in the 1800s, it has been incorporated into languages all over the globe and is used and understood by people who may not know another word of English. H.L. Mencken called OK "the most shining and successful Americanism ever invented."

But OK's origin was a mystery until the early 1940s, when word sleuth Allen Read revealed its derivation. Dr. Read, who was professor of English at Columbia University for nearly 30 years, spent his long professional life unraveling linguistic mysteries. He was known as the "OK expert." That was hardly his only triumph, but it was his most famous. And it was no mean feat, considering the many theories extant before Dr. Read's definitive detective work.

One theory concerning OK's origin suggested that it was adapted from the Choctow Indian word okeh (spelled okeh), which means "it is so." Another theorized that the phonetic notation "OK" marked crates of fine Haitian rum and molasses from the Caribbean city of Aux Cayes (spelled Aux Cayes, and pronounced ohKAY). Still another theory suggested that the word came from a superior U.S. Army biscuit called OK Biscuits.

The "OK" speculation ended when Allen Read published his research in 1941. He wrote that "O.K." first appeared in its current sense in 1839 in a Boston newspaper, and that it was an abbreviation for a deliberate misspelling. A fad in journalism at the time was to use humorous abbreviations as code for certain expressions for example, S.P. for "small potatoes" or R.T.B.S. for "remains to be seen." OK was one such abbreviation, and it stood for "all correct," misspelled "Oll Korrect."

While other such newspaper abbreviations died away, OK stuck. Why? Because it was used during a presidential campaign. In 1840, President Martin Van Buren was up for re-election. Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, N.Y., and was known as "Old Kinderhook." His supporters took O and K from "Old Kinderhook," blended them with the "all correct" meaning of OK, and called themselves the "OK Club" both borrowing and reinforcing OK's meaning of "all right!"

So a little word was born a word that became America's leading linguistic export.

Allen Read tracked down the origins of many words. He once hitchhiked to Iowa from Missouri to investigate the birth of the word "blizzard." He contributed to Funk & Wagnall's, Random House, and other dictionaries. He was an editor of the Dictionary of American English. He wrote entries for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But Read's work on OK eclipsed his other work. And 37 years ago this month, OK was transported to the moon. Everyone remembers Neil Armstrong's celebrated words on July 20, 1969: "Houston, Tranquility Base here; the Eagle has landed." But those weren't the first words spoken after the moon landing. It was in fact Buzz Aldrin who spoke first, with a status report that began: "Contact light! OK..."

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.