Monday, August 13, 2007

When OK became OK

[continued from here and here]

Fay's summary of Read's second paper on the history of O.K. begins with a criticism of the evidence it presents. Fay claims that although the Read repeats the connection to oll korrect he "is able to offer only two examples of clear cut instances of this 'general usage.'" He dismisses the relevance of all examples that were found making reference to a story about Andrew Jackson's legendary poor spelling. Read provides a total of six examples of "oll korrect" spelled-out. Not all include the abbreviation. This is still good evidence connecting O.K. to "oll korrect" as an intended meaning. Especially considering the several examples Read provides in the first paper that convincingly connects "O.K." to "all correct" without the facetious spelling.

Fay misstates a few of Reads arguments claiming that he entirely dismisses the relevance of any occurrence that connects O.K. to Andrew Jackson and he even quotes Read as claiming that any attempt to connect William Harrison to "Oll Korrect is "simply a transference from one false story to another." In fact the transference that Read refers to is the claim that Jack Downing authored the story connecting Jackson to O.K. Downing wrote a letter saying that "Gineral" Harrison used the phrase "Oll Korrect" and was subsequently accredited with attributing the phrase to Jackson. Throughout his treatment of this story Read asserts that the story was most likely false and born of political motivations. Far from entirely dismissing the relevance of the stories Read grants that the stories show a political connection and interest in the meaning of OK.

Countering the attribution does not counter the general usage. Examples tied to a specific story are not proof that it didn't occur generally. Read's First Stage paper gives especially strong evidence of the connection to "all correct" and the motivation of the Jackson digs very reasonably provide a 'spell-out' to make sure the joke makes the point of his failings with letters. Even the examples connecting OK to Jackson remain relevant.

They are particularly relevant to Fay's earlier claims that there was no evidence of "oll korrect" as an intended meaning of OK. Tho Read's first "First Stage" paper doesn't meet Fay's expectations of evidence, such is amply provided in the "Second Stage" paper.

Fay writes:

The evidence he presents in the "Second Stage" paper documents extremely persuasively that "OK" was very widely used during this time as a colloquial expression of affirmation, but it was not employed in general usage as an abbreviation for 'oll korrect' (except in connection with Jackson) any more than it was in dozens of other ways.

This attempt to detract from the connection between oll korrect and OK overlooks the very simple explanation that the meaning would likely widen since the first appearance of the abbreviation. Read relies on C.G. Greene's use in 1839 which stands well as the earliest use complete with gloss. Because Fay feels justified in dismissing the bulk of examples he is able to allow two examples originating in Ohio where he is better poised to connect the phrase to Choctaw influence which would of course be more likely on the "frontier." This of course requires that he defy the argument that all examples are relevant. As all examples are relevant we find several that do originate in New England.

Fay's thesis that OK is an affirmative by influence of a similar Choctaw form then takes arms against Read's antithetical support of the connection to "Old Kinderhook." A Newark NJ paper told the story of a group demonstrators using OK as a rallying cry. Read quotes the Tammany editor who writes in New Era (27 May 1840) explaining the bifurcate significance of OK: he mentions a pin

having upon it the (to the 'Whigs') very frightful letters O.K., significant of the birthplace of Martin Van Buren, old Kinderhook, as also the rallying word of the Democracy of the late election, 'all correct.'

Fay challenges the explanation arguing that the Tammany Society "delighted in using what they perceived as Indian expressions whenever possible." He introduces his argument by explaining: "In 1812 a branch of the Tammany Society was formed at Hamilton, Ohio. They called their meeting place 'Wigwam No 9,' and met to listen to 'long talks.'" He then claims "The New York Tammanies of 1839-40 were not very different, nor were they perceived as very different, from the Ohio Tammanies of 1812." From six months of New Era microfilm archives Fay provides a few accounts as evidence that the Tammany meetings served as little more "than an occasion to delight in Indian speech and practices." Although the number of these accounts is good evidence that there was interest in such activity the details do not preclude other interests or purposes.

Fay further claims that Read's faith in the importance of the New Era pin advertisement is mistaken and misplaced. He writes:

Others have not always share Read's interpretation of the notice. The notice does not materially seem to be particularly about "Old Kinderhook." On the contrary, it is hard to imagine a more explicit argument that in 1840 the expression "OK" was popularly associated with Jackson and the Choctaws at the Battle of New Orleans. At least the writer of the ad saw no need to explain the connection. Both "Old Kinderhook" and "all correct" seem rather to be afterthoughts to exploit the sportive acronym fad.

It makes little sense to discard the relevance of a provided gloss because a contrary unmentioned gloss is more likely to be assumed. It is mere conjecture that the writer intended the connection that Fay claims he "saw not need to explain." Jackson is mentioned in the ad (as "the hero") because he wears the "old white hat with a crape" depicted on the pin. While Van Buren is mentioned by name and is certainly more likely the focus of a campaign pin as the incumbent candidate in the roiling election.

Fay then argues that the ad would not have been and influential instance of the use and that there is little evidence of "Old Kinderhook" in wide circulation, stating that "the one example Read cites of general usage of the name "Old Kinderhook" may have been more tongue-in-cheek than an example of 'general usage.'" But he makes no sound argument that a tongue-in-cheek example is not a reflection of "general usage."

Fay also overlooks one stilt of Read's argument when he challenges the significance of O.K. He grants that it would have been a parallel reference to Van Buren and Richard Mentor Johnson (Old Kentuck). "For the Democrats to suggest that the popular nickname "Old Kentuck" referred to the Democratic Johnson was a gag to take a slap at Clay and the Whigs." This is a point that Read makes. It was appropriated to mock and frustrate the opposing party. Such a motivation does not discount another connection. In fact it makes the point that there was a struggle to cement the term in common usage. This is key to Read's main thesis that this time was an important one in cementing OK in general usage because political currents were greatly motivated to appropriate and claim phrases. Controversy is a reliable force of lexical influence.

Read’s reliance on the Kinderhook connection is to explain what caused OK to enter common and general use. This goal may withstand even an argument that OK stood for other things just as commonly.

And he provides extensive examples that point to a wide and varied awareness of "Kinderhook" as a common nickname. In two pages Read offers sixteen examples of "Kinderhook" used in references to Van Buren including a song containing the line "Then give three cheers for Kinderhook" in the Boston Morning Post (21 May 1840) and an account by the Englishman Edward Waylen who recalled travels towards Kinderhook and the impressive effect on passengers as the town grew nearer. His fellow Englishman Archibald Montgomery Maxwell produced the "curious" account of traveling past "Render Nook, the great centre of Loco-focoism in these parts."

Read concludes his paper confidently, saying

In the trajectory of O.K., "Old Kinderhook" represents a "booster shot" that marks an important stage of its course. Our historical information is now rich enough so that we can plot the trajectory of O.K. as it has rocketed across the American linguistic sky.

Fay does not share the same confidence and turns to another form of challenge. He takes issue with semantic and syntactic evidence. Such will be the focus of the next post on this textured question.

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