Thursday, August 23, 2007

OK. But what do you mean?

Continued from here here and here.

Fay claims there are also connotative and semantic problems with Read's proposed etymology of OK. The first problem he identifies is that "'OK' has always had some widely understood and accepted special connotations of impropriety to it." He cites two occurrences from the theatrical weekly, Paul Pry that Read uses as evidence: the first, a story about a benefit for the widow and children of Henry J Finn; the second, a story about a "horde of bloods" from Boston who engage in a "hob-a-nob": probably a round of drinking.

Though Fry claims that "Read says the editor apologized the next day for using the expression" it is not clear from Read's article that the expression was the reason for the apology. What Read says is that "in the next issue the editor apologized for the article that had contained O.K." While the expression could possibly be the reason for the apology it doesn't seem likely. The apology appeared the day after the article about the drinking buddies: three weeks after the article about the benefit. Such timing suggests that the apology addressed something other than the OK abbreviation. As Read recaps: the OK was "in a piece that slipped past the editor by mistake." It was the piece, not necessarily the OK that slipped by.

Evidence that OK was considered an undesirable form could help Fay's argument that it was a borrowing from the Choctaw. Fay pulls a quote from "O.K.; a True Tale of the Late Election," a fictional piece in Brother Jonathan (21 November 1840): "Drums beat in the street and shouts of O! K! made the night hideous." Perhaps the line assures him of the etymological connection to Choctaw. Such assurance must come by courageous conjecture.

As further evidence that many viewed the Choctaw language as undesirable and inferior, Fay relies on "Brinton's implication that Choctaw was the language of 'ignorance and immorality' while English was the language of 'godliness and civilization.'" Brinton did in fact make the ethnocentric and bigoted claim of "ignorance and immorality" but he was not saying anything about the language. He was giving misguided praise to the missionary efforts of the Reverend Cyrus Byington. The statement is found in the biographical introduction to an article on Choctaw grammar published in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (4 February 1870). It offers little more than circumstantial support for the argument that OK was decried because of an undesirable origin.

The semantic "problem" with Read's etymology: "No one would seriously argue that in any but one or two instances the expression 'OK' has been used to express 'Old Kinderhook.'" It's true that there is only light evidence of the occurrence of "O.K." as a substitute for the words "Old Kinderhook." But Fay shifts his focus claiming that "even 'Oll Korrect' is often not a good semantic fit for the expression 'OK.'" He suggests rather that "the traditional, non-abbreviation 'okay' seems to fit perfectly" in those otherwise awkward uses.

We may presume that he relies on the 'non-abbreviation' because it shakes loose from the need to represent either "oll korrect" or "old Kinderhook." Fay's entire argument predicates the etymology from the Choctaw "okeh" which he glosses as "it is so and not otherwise." (I will address his discussion of the Choctaw connection in another post.) He cites a linguist (Herbert A Badger) who in his 1971 dissertation notes "the occurrence of okeh in Choctaw conversations in much the same syntactic and semantic environments as the American OK."

Abbreviations do not always function syntactically or semantically as their long-forms. Especially when they represent forms that are not nouns. Consider such up-and-coming abbreviations as PO or LOL. These are far from standard. The former takes the past-tense marker after the "O" (I was so PO'd) even tho the long form takes the marker after the first segment (I was so pissed-off) and the latter (when pronounced "ell oh ell") is heavily mocked even in extremely casual speech. And although there are some who use "ell oh ell" in speech (yes--I have heard it) they rarely intend it as a replacement for "laughing out loud". I've never heard anything close to "I elled oh ell when heard the joke!" Abbreviations--especially slang abbreviations--often work within patterns that differ from the rules applied to the long form.

Read addresses the flexibility of casual forms in his "First Stage" paper saying that "slang expressions are notoriously loose, and it should not be expected that either O.K. or all correct would be used in a strict sense." Fay does not share Read's willingness to accept such loose interpretations from an abbreviatory etymology. He finds the "all correct" gloss suspect in the following passages where he feels that long form does not fit as well as "it is so and not otherwise."

  1. The net proceeds was upward of $1,200, O.K.

  2. [O]ur Bank Directors have not thought it worth their while to call a meeting, even for consultation, on the subject. It is O.K. (all correct) in this quarter.

  3. The house was O.K. at the last concert, and did credit to the musical taste of the young ladies and gents.

Holding to the premise of Fay's argument we find the very fault with his "okeh/okay" gloss that he posits on the "O.K." gloss. The first example can take the "it is so..." gloss easily. But examples 2 and 3 work better when the abbreviation is replaced with "all correct". In sentence 3 it is hard to see how a re-affirmative would be intended or even how it would make sense.

Fay then relies on a nebulous argument regarding the impressions made by the differing etymological definitions.

But in almost all of those cases, the essential "feel" of the word is not conveyed by "all correct." To use the terminology of the Choctaw linguist, the "syntactic and semantic environments" do not quite fit. In all of those cases, the tradition "feel" of "okay" is a much better fit.

The better fit is not clear.

Impelling Fay to question and counter Read's conclusions is an article on the Folk etymology of OK that Read wrote in 1964. Fay also introduces another voice, the writings of Woodford Heflin who questions some of Read's earlier conclusions. Further posts will consider several new voices and other arguments, including those specifically those in favor of a Choctaw origin.


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  2. While I don't have any particular comment on this post, I wanted to say that I do appreciate this series, and I'm looking forward to its exciting developments in the coming weeks.


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