Monday, 15 July 2013

Is ‘Ok’ really ‘Okay’?

Martin Van Buren (1782 - 1862)
‘Okay’, often shortened to ‘ok’, is one of the most frequently used words in the English language. Many of us will use it at least once a day. Even the commonest of words have a history, and ‘okay’ is no exception.

Historically, ‘okay’ began as a deliberate misspelling of something else. For example, whereas a shop sign may read ‘betta value’, meaning ‘better value’, ‘okay’ began as a deliberate misspelling for ‘all correct’ in the nineteenth century, and was changed to ‘oll korrect’. This gained vast publicity when it was adopted by the political campaigner and the eighth president of America, Martin Van Buren, for his 1840 re-election bid, with a nod to his nickname Old Kinderhook (Kinderhook being a village in New York state where he was born).  Despite Van Buren losing his bid, the expression stuck. It is believed that Greek immigrants who arrived in America were known as ‘okay-boys’ because they quickly picked up American idiolects.

Like many words in English, ‘okay’ has had many forms. It was first spelt ‘okeh’, and it was in 1929 that the current spelling with the ‘a’ appeared. The noun emerged in 1841, and the verb in 1888.
Today, however, because of the familiarity of ‘okay’, it has become rather bland and emotionless. If someone asked us about their new hairstyle, and we replied ‘it’s okay’, we may be met with a less than thankful response. As a result of this, many attempts have been made to rejuvenate ‘okay’ through the creation derivatives. For example, ‘okey doke’ and ‘okilly dokilly’ to name but two – the latter characterised by Ned Flanders in The Simpsons. In fact, ‘okey doke’ was first recorded in student slang back in 1932.

So it seems that ‘okay’ is no longer okay. Whereas its roots are in fierce political campaigning, it is now a word which may be regarded as rather passionless and stale - just one example of how words change as they meander through time.

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