"OK" (also spelled "okay", "ok", or "O.K.") is a word denoting approval, acceptance, agreement, assent, or acknowledgment. "OK" has frequently turned up as a loanword in many other languages.
As an adjective, "okay" means "adequate," "acceptable" ("this is okay to send out"), "mediocre" often in contrast to "good" ("the food was okay"); it also functions as an adverb in this sense. As an interjection, it can denote compliance ("Okay, I will do that"), or agreement ("Okay, that''s good"). As a verb and noun it means "assent" ("The boss okayed the purchase," and, "The boss gave his okay to the purchase.") As a versatile discourse marker (or back-channeling item), it can also be used with appropriate voice tone to show doubt or to seek confirmation ("Okay?" or "Is that okay?").Contents
Numerous explanations for the origin of the expression have been suggested, but only few have been discussed seriously by linguists. The following proposals have found mainstream recognition.Boston abbreviation fad
The etymology that most reference works provide today is based on a survey of the word''s early history in print: a series of six articles by Allen Walker Read in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964. He tracked the spread and evolution of the word in American newspapers and other written documents, and later throughout the rest of the world. He also documented controversy surrounding okay and the history of its folk etymologies, both of which are intertwined with the history of the word itself. Read''s work has nevertheless been called in for closer scrutiny by scholars of both Choctaw and West African languages.
In it he argues that, at the time of its first appearance in print, a broader fad existed in the United States of "comical misspellings" and of forming and employing acronyms, themselves based on colloquial speech patterns:The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 … OFM, "our first men," and used expressions like NG, "no go," GT, "gone to Texas," and SP, "small potatoes." Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of okay was OW, "oll wright."
The general fad is speculated to have existed in spoken or informal written U.S. English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK''s original presentation as "all correct" was later varied with spellings such as "Oll Korrect" or even "Ole Kurreck".
The term appears to have achieved national prominence in 1840, when supporters of the American Democratic political party claimed during the 1840 United States presidential election that it stood for "Old Kinderhook," a nickname for a Democratic presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, New York, who was Andrew Jackson''s protégé. "''Vote for OK'' was snappier than using his Dutch name." In response, Whig opponents attributed OK, in the sense of "Oll Korrect," to Andrew Jackson''s bad spelling. The country-wide publicity surrounding the election appears to have been a critical event in okay''s history, widely and suddenly popularizing it across the United States. Read had originally proposed an etymology of "okay" in "Old Kinderhook" in 1941. The evidence presented in that article was somewhat sparse, and the connection to "Oll Korrect" not properly elucidated. Various challenges to the etymology were presented, e. g., Heflin''s 1962 article. However, Read''s landmark 1963–1964 papers silenced most of the skepticism. Read''s etymology gained immediate acceptance, and is now offered without reservation in most dictionaries.Choctaw
The folk singer Pete Seeger sang that "okay" was of Choctaw Indian origin, as the dictionaries of the time tended to agree. Three major American reference works (Webster''s, New Century, Funk & Wagnalls) cited the Choctaw etymology as the probable origin until as late as 1961.
The earliest evidence for this is provided in work by the missionaries Cyrus Byington and Alfred Wright in 1825. These missionaries ended many lines in their translation of the Bible with the particle "okeh" (often sentence final) meaning "it is so".
Subsequent Choctaw spelling books de-emphasized the spellings lists in favor of straight prose, and they made use of the particle but they too never included it in the word lists or discussed it directly. The presumption was that the use of particle "oke" or "hoke" was so common and self-evident as to preclude any need for explanation or discussion for either its Choctaw or non-Choctaw readership.
A brief search through Byington''s Dictionary of the Choctaw Language confirms the ubiquity of the "okeh" particle.
The Choctaw language was spoken at this time in the South-Eastern United States. The major language of trade in this area, Mobilian Jargon, was based on Choctaw-Chickasaw, two Muskogean-family languages. This language was used, in particular, for communication with the Cherokee (an Iroquoian-family language).
Arguments for a North American origin for the word cite the tendency of English to adopt loan words, combined with the ubiquity of the "okeh" particle (similar particles exist in native language groups distinct from Iroquoian (, c.f. "ekosi") and its usefulness in conversation (a verbal equivalent to nodding one''s head) as the main reasons for its rapid spread among English speakers.West African
A verifiable written attestation of the particle ''kay'' is from a North Carolina slave not wanting to be flogged by a European visiting America in 1784:
Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe;...—
A West African (Mande and/or Bantu) etymology has been argued in scholarly sources, tracing the word back to the Wolof and Bantu word waw-kay or the Mande (aka "Mandinke" or "Mandingo") phrase o ke.
David Dalby first made the claim that the particle "okay" could have African origins in the 1969 Hans Wolff Memorial Lecture. His argument was reprinted in various newspaper articles between 1969 and 1971. This suggestion has also been mentioned more recently by Joseph Holloway, who argued in the 1993 book The African Heritage of American English (co-written with a retired missionary) that various West African languages have near-homophone discourse markers with meanings such as "yes indeed" or which serve as part of the back-channeling repertoire. Though Frederic Cassidy challenged Dalby''s claims, asserting that there is no documentary evidence that any of these African-language words had any causal link with its use in the American press, one can certainly wonder at the fact that this standard of written proof does not account for the illiteracy in which the West African speakers were kept during the period of slavery in question.
The West African hypothesis had not been accepted by 1981 by any etymologists, but nevertheless has since appeared in scholarly sources published by linguists and non-linguists alike.Alternative etymologies