Ask Artie #1: OK v. Okay

Artie Q. PebbletonAsk Artie, History!, Linguistics!

This is the first entry in the Ask Artie series, where you ask me a question using the contact form right here, and I take my sweet time researching and answering that question.  Let’s break a champagne bottle against the bow and get started!

CantusFirmus writes:

Hi Artie,

What can you tell me about the use of “OK” versus “Okay”, and the history of this word?

Okay.  Well!  CantusFirmus, I commend you for asking one doozy of a question.

The origins of the word okay, or O.K., or OK – however you prefer, really, and we’ll get to that – are, as folklore has it, clouded in mystery.  Camps of historical linguists have fought a bitter, pitched battle over okay for at least fifty years, if not longer.  Many explanations exist:

  • O.K. is short for oll korrect, a humorous misspelling of all correct.
  • O.K. is short for Old Kinderhook, a nickname for Martin van Buren, the 8th President of the United States, who hailed from Kinderhook, New York.
  • Okay is a borrowing from the Choctaw word for yes, okeh.
  • Okay comes from Aux Cayes, the French way to say to Les Cayes, a Haitian city in the southwest of the country.

Well, I side with Cecil Adams of the inimitable Straight Dope column of the Chicago Reader, who says that none of these theories, on their own, offer a conclusive answer.  But two of them do, in combination, and that’s oll korrect and Old Kinderhook.  Papers in the journal American Speech, in the years 1963-64, published by a Columbia University professor named Alan Walker Read, fervently support this theory.  And I buy it.  So does noted philologist and author Bill Bryson, and if that’s not a hearty enough endorsement, you can take it up with him.

Come along with me then, back to Boston, in the late 1830s.  It is a large, prosperous town, with a boisterous press, and then, as now, mass media not only informed the populace, but it also transmitted fads and trends.  As Cecil Adams puts it,

The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as 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 OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”

Thus, oll korrect, or, OK, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was first printed in the March 23rd, 1839 edition of the Boston Morning Post.  The abbreviation was the only one that really caught on, and it was Martin van Buren’s fault.  Let’s talk about him for a minute.

Van Buren was a one-term president who served from 1837 to 1841, and presided over (and was somewhat wrongfully blamed for) the financial crisis of 1837 – a five-year depression which, since it began five weeks after Vam Buren took office, was probably the fault of President Jackson, van Buren’s predecessor.   Jackson had issued an executive order called the Specie Circular, which is all about historical monetary policy, and I’ll explain it in a footnote because we’re talking about the word okay here, and I don’t want to get distracted.[1]  Anyway, van Buren was an unpopular president because of The Panic of 1837 – it colored his entire presidency; the Whig party nicknamed him “Martin van Ruin”.  But he won the Democratic nomination in 1840 because he controlled the Democratic machine, particularly that of New York’s powerful Tammany Hall.  At that time, the Democratic Party was new – it had been around for about a decade – and van Buren had helped to create it, along with Andrew Jackson, so of course they had a good amount of pull with party leaders.

Attempting to capitalize on the fad that was sweeping the Eastern Seaboard, Tammany Democrats in New York formed The O.K. Club, which advocated for the reelection of Old Kinderhook, Martin van Buren.  Old Kinderhook was OK by them, and the expression took off from there, because van Buren was so unpopular that assigning a faddish nickname to him was simply too tempting not to make fun of.  Cecil writes:

Van Buren’s opponents tried to turn the phrase against him… they also devoted considerable energy to coming up with unflattering interpretations, e.g., “Out of Kash, Out of Kredit, and Out of Klothes.” Newspaper editors and publicists around the country delighted in coming up with even sillier interpretations — Oll Killed, Orfully Konfused, Often Kontradicts, etc. — so that by the time the campaign was over the expression had taken firm root nationwide.

So there you have it: in 1840, van Buren’s cronies jumped on a silly wordplay fad in a desperate attempt to save his failed reelection campaign, and in the process popularized a marvelous Americanism.   That’s the history of the word’s origins.  But, CantusFirmus, that doesn’t even answer your question, does it?

I don’t think there’s much of a difference in usage between the two forms.  The abbreviation, OK, is obviously older, right – but I surmise that okay was formed to better represent the word as it was spoken, so that it looks like a word rather than just an abbreviation.  It also better allows the word to become a verb.  It looks a little more natural to say she okayed the transfer than she OK’d the transfer, wouldn’t you agree?  The first printed incidence of okay dates to about 1895 – so, about 55 years after OK’s first great burst of popularity.

I generally prefer okay to OK, but opinions are varied: Garner’s American Usage says that okay is more formal than OK, the Associated Press style-guide forbids okay and advocates OK, and the New York Times style-guide insists on O.K., with those periods. [2]  As a Chicagoan, I like the Chicago Manual of Style’s take on it, which says that, since both OK and okay are accepted spellings, neither is better than the other, and neither is more proper to use.

This diversity of opinions, to my mind, means that nobody has any idea what they’re talking about.  This is an issue of language culture and style, which is, by its nature, fiddly and capricious, as opposed to the harder dictates of grammar, which is also fiddly and capricious, but less so.

The whole point of a style guide is to generate consistent language, so if you asked me, I’d say, “CantusFirmus, go with your gut and choose the spelling you prefer, but maintain your own personal style and stick to that spelling consistently.  Okay?  Okay.”

And another thing – awesome pseudonym!  A cantus firmus is a fixed song – an existing composition upon which other songs are written; I’d say it’s like a song template, but that’s simplifying it uncharitably.  Mostly, medieval choral music was based on cantus firmi, but Bach did it, too, so that makes it undeniably cool.  I mean, we’re talking about a guy who wrote a crab canon (a song that can be played backwards and forwards) in such a way that when played front to back and back to front simultaneously, the melodies generate point and counterpoint for one another.  Bach was awesome.

Also, cantus firmus brings to mind this deep, funky cut by Aretha Franklin (to take as jarring of a left turn as possible).  Rock steady, CantusFirmus.  Rock steady.  And thanks for your question!  I hope I did… okay.

Yours in learning,

– Artie

[1.] Andrew Jackson issued an executive order called the Specie Circular, which required people buying land from the United States Government to use gold, silver, or gold-or-silver-backed money (that is, the amount of money it says on the banknote corresponds to an identical worth of gold or silver that would be inconvenient to carry around).  At the time, each state issued its own currency, and some of those currencies were soft, not hard – they were likely to fluctuate in value pretty significantly.  The United States didn’t issue what we recognize today as a federal currency, the greenback dollar, until 1862 – sure, there were Continental Dollars printed after the Revolutionary War, but mostly, private and state banks issued their own currency.

The Circular, as well as a few other bank-related events, precipitated the Crisis of 1837, in which, owing to sudden and severe deflation, over 340 banks closed their doors (and there were fewer than a thousand banks total in the U.S. at the time).  Money lost its value, people lost their jobs, and President van Buren left the White House in 1841, having been whomped by the Whig candidate, William Henry Harrison (who died 30 days after taking office, but that’s another story.).