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THE Atlas Obscura website celebrated the 177th birthday yesterday of the word “okay.” The musings of Cara Giaimo, its author, encouraged me to dig into my own shelves.
Briefly, as Cara notes, it was March 23, 1839, that the Boston Morning Post offered the first published use of o.k. to mean “all correct.” Its spoken use has a passel of possible earlier origins, including Choctaw (okeh), Scottish (och aye) and West African Mandinigo (o ke). The word o.k., okay or its equivalent appears in everything from Arabic (حسنا ) to Vietnamese (ôkê).
I like the theory that o.k. sprang from the Boston Abbreviation Fad, linguistic fun that began in the summer of 1838. Other expressions of the BAF were NG for “no go,” SP for “small potatoes” and GT for “gone to Texas.” Wife Dottie tells me that she knew this last phrase as a euphemism for high school girls who temporarily disappeared for a few months. She was naïve enough to believe they really made the trip.
O.K. has a political tie-in too. The 1840 presidential election was one of the first campaigns with razzmatazz. The Democratic candidate and eventual loser was Andrew Jackson’s protégé Martin Van Buren, aka Old Kinderhook after his midstate New York origins. “Vote for OK” was part of his campaign.
The Whig party opposition countered by saying OK stood for “all correct,” and that followers of Andrew Jackson just didn’t know how to spell. Not unrelated, in editorial jargon “TK” means something is “to come.”
I searched for o.k. and its variations in the The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1971. It wasn’t there, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. Paul Temple, my favorite English (fictional) detective, objects to this Americanism whenever it’s uttered by Charlie, the Temple butler/servant/handyman. In full disclosure, Paul could be something of a jerk: He’d say to his wife, “Move over, I’ll drive….”
O.K. is so common an expression in the U.S. that the Dictionary of American underworld lingo, 1947, doesn’t bother listing it as lingo. However, in an addendum for the English underworld, it offers equivalents that would probably be acceptable to Paul Temple: “aces,” “twenty-two carats,” “jake” and “keeno.”
By contrast, The American Thesaurus of Slang, 1950, has a ball with o.k. Included are variations such as “o.k. by me,” “o.k. for my dough,” “o.k., toots” and “o.k. on the blops.” This last one is movie talk, used by the sound engineer when an audio portion is correctly synched with the film.
That sounds keeno to me. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016