Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ok. Let's continue.

In February of 1963 A.W. Read's article "The First Stage in the History of 'O.K.'" was published in American Speech. In this article Read establishes a culture of rampant wordplay and facetious abbreviations and spellings. The primary objective of the article is to show that his article "The Evidence on 'O.K.'" which was published 20 years earlier in The Saturday Review of Literature claimed too late an establishment of O.K. in American use. Read argues that by 1838 the "craze" of misspellings and initialisms had set the stage for O.K. to enter a wide use as an abbreviation for oll korrect. This was 2 years earlier than the 1840 campaigns that his prior article had identified as the first stage of development.

Read identifies several instances of O.K. used as early as 1839. In that year the announcement of a trip by the Anti-Bell-Ringing Society got attention from the Boston papers. Charles Gordon Greene wrote about the event using the line that is widely regarded the first instance of this strain of O.K.: complete with gloss.

...he of the [Providence] Journal, and his train-band, would have the 'contribution box,' et ceteras, o.k.--all correct--and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.

Several instances of O.K. followed--Read gives seven instances that provided a gloss and five that didn't. In his article "The Choctaw Expression 'Okeh' and the Americanism 'Okay'" Jim Fay writes that the unglossed instances are evidence that the meaning is clear: "The reader is assumed to be already familiar with the term and its meaning." Several of these instances are in response to each other and 4 of the first 5 uses are given a gloss. It makes sense that the meaning of the phrase in a responsive succession would foment a fast familiarity.

Fay also advises that even with the gloss in a few cases "'all correct' does not seem to be a particularly good fit semantically or syntactically. In all instances the term is used in an informal, uncultured context." It's difficult to know what Fay means by "uncultured" but his reticence to grant felicitous use has been addressed by Read who provides good evidence of the "loose" and facile use of slang terms. Even addressing concerns (raised by W.A. Heflin in his article "'O.K.' and Its Incorrect Etymology") regarding the exact term "all correct" with the following example from a headline:


The returns of members to the State Legislature exhibit a great democratic gain, and what is of the utmost importance, the REDEMPTION OF THE SENATE FROM THE CONTROL OF FEDERALISM.

It's not clear what Fay intends by claiming that "In none of the dozen quotes offered by Read is the expression used as an abbreviation for anything." In several of the quotes the gloss indicates that it is most certainly an abbreviation for "all correct."

Fay questions the validity of the conclusion of Read's article calling it "startling." To Read's summation: the spring of 1839, O.K. became current as standing for 'oll korrect,' in a slang application of all correct, and from there it became widespread over the country. Thus the emergence of O.K. is well accounted for.

Fay responds: "except for one instance in which he speaks about the use of humor in 'the emergence of "oll korrect,"' that term does not appear any place in the paper until this summary." In fact the term does appear 2 pages before this conclusion when Read establishes the trend of humorous misspellings. Identifying such a trend is vital to Read's argument because the glosses "all correct" would not otherwise make sense as the full form of O.K. Read provides such examples as "O.W." (glossed "all right" presumably for oll wright) as analogous explanation. It is not a startling jump to recognize that the gloss does not need to reflect the jocular spelling.

Fay argues it is a liability to Read's argument that not a single instance of "oll korrect" is in evidence. This is certainly a huge lapse in the evidence. Even with other humorous spellings in evidence such as the gloss "pocket the kash" for "P.K." and "morning kall" for "M.K." Tho the humorous passages that contain "O.K." do not provide the same reflective humorous spelling in the gloss it is not clear that all writers were given to the convention.

Fay implicates the absence of a humorous gloss saying: "This includes instances in which the writer spells 'Boston' as 'Bosting' or uses N.S.M.J. for ''nough said 'moung[sic] gentlemen' or uses the phrase 'Vell, vot ov it!' but still glosses 'O.K.' as 'all correct.'" However the examples may be accounted for by noting that writers use these re-spellings to reflect an altered pronunciation and in one case the elision of letters in necessary to explain the initialism. It would make little sense to provide "enough said among gentlemen" as a gloss for N.S.M.J.

Still the case is far from proved. We may understand why stark evidence of a connection to 'oll korrect' is not found, but even a most reasonable explanation of the omission does not allay our desire for evidence. At some point we may have to admit that none of the competing etymologies are infallible. At this point we can say that Read has clearly demonstrated that the regular use of O.K. with the gloss "all correct" took root during a time when many phrases were abbreviated with letters that represented a "sportive" spelling.

In this essay Read does not make the case for the connection to Old Kinderhook and he has not shown the infiltration of the phrase into widespread everyday use in conversation. He notes this next step in a final footnote.

The relation of this first stage to the political development of 1840, when O.K. burst into overwhelming national currency, will be dealt with in another study, "The Second Stage in the History of 'O.K.,'" to appear in the May issue of American Speech.

A forthcoming post will focus on Fay's discussion of the "Second Stage" article.


  1. American Speach is one of those sportive spellings, right? :->

  2. *gasp**cough*
    Yess. Yess itt wuz. Yoo sea, Aym oll ubowt maycking geokes thet mayck mee luk phoolish...

    ...on accident.

  3. Who knew Americans in the 1830s were laying such an important ground work for the teens of today and their text messaging?

  4. It's funny, but I had been interested in this in part because of its connection to the current acronymical trend in communication.

    Naturally, timing being what it is, I would get involved in this while traveling to Austin.

    And it is a very interesting study because of the regular lack of written etymological evidence when slang gets adopted into the accepted standard.


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