Etymology Of Okay

Between 1499 and the 1820s or so, millions of people from northwest Africa were kidnapped, transported across the Atlantic, and forced to work on large plantations.

Their two main languages were Bantu and Wolof. In the latter, the word "jev" means "jive talking", "banana" means "banana", "hipi" means "eyes open", "boogy-wooky" means "happy sweat", and "waw-kay" means "okay". It's the emphatic form of "waw (wow)", meaning "yes". This is among the most commonly spoken interjections in any language, and as an interjection it's most likely to be spoken automatically without regard to what language one is speaking.

"Okay" entered the verbal vocabulary of Nordic Americans. But they didn't write it down, essentially for the same reason as they didn't write down common words like "sweat".

Then newspaper editors and candidates for political office started playing with the word by making up backronyms for it. They were just trying to be sly & stealth a word that poor people used in as if it were somehow academic.

Disinformational sources, such as the survey at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/503/what-does-ok-stand-for, disregard one crucial element: Unlike other joke acronyms, the "ol korrect" variations all entered English around the same time. Therefore, their many citations are in fact evidence against an English origin for the word. And that page is disinformational, because its "alternatives" list mysteriously disregards the Wolof origin. The history of slavery, such as slave managers' journals, have many instances of the word "okee" entering our language. That's where all the backronyms came from.

When you write a dictionary, you read old newspapers & journals looking for "citations" of words in their earliest usages. But because there were so many (often conflicting) backronyms available for O.K., and because many dictionary editors were prejudiced whites who believed blacks weren't bright enough to make an acronym, they only accepted the citations that referred to whites inventing playful backronyms on O.K., and they disregarded all the evidence that the word "okay" came from Africa. The acronymity of the bogus citations was somehow given more credit than the citations of original phonetic usage were.

If the word "Jive" had sounded like two letters in a row, we would have backronymed that too, and the same dictionaries would have then declared a white origin for the word "jive".

In summary, "OK" is spelled "okay", it is not an acronym of anything, and writing "OK" is a (very minor and innocent) example of historical revisionism.

By comparison, at one time in this country all the encyclopedias said that the inventor of the cotton gin was Eli Whitney. The truth is that Eli Whitney was the owner of the inventor of the cotton gin.


"An expansion on my earlier rather vague note about the attempt to argue an African origin for O.K. I've managed to find my original source for the information, which was an article in the London Times of July 19, 1969, by David Dalby (Reader in West African Languages, SOAS, U of London). There is apparently independent evidence of the importance of Wolof as a lingua franca among American slaves, and some of the foodstuffs traded along the West African coast have entered the English vocab as Wolof loans (Dalby cites banana and yam). There are other examples in this article than those I cited: 'dig' in the 'understand' or 'appreciate' sense seems like Wolof 'dega', 'to understand'; 'jive', in its original sense of 'talk misleadingly' (Don't jive me, man), finds a parallel in Wolof 'jev', 'to talk disparagingly'; there's a Wolof verb 'hipi', meaning 'to open one's eyes', which with the agentive verbal suffix 'kat', gives 'hipikat', 'one whose eyes are open'. And if the explanation of an African origin for such a quintessential Americanism as OK isn't enough of a cultural shock, Dalby also suggests that the positive and negative interjections uh-huh and uh-uh also have an African origin. He says that these kinds of interjections are particularly common in Africa, and points out that not only are they more common in American English than in British English, they're also more common in Afrikaans than in European Dutch!"

-- Paul Werth, writing on the LINGUIST mailing list (http://www.emich.edu/~linguist/issues/4/4-705.html)

Okay is not an acronym. The reason so many OK acronyms appear in the last century is because the word entered the USA as a word (the Wolof word "waw-kay") and spread out. It spread first, before any one acronym caught it. No single printed acronym could have become such a common word. And because it sounded to whites like an acronym, they played with it.


From the O.E.D:

From the detailed evidence provided by A. W. Read it seems clear that O.K. first appeared as a jocular alteration of the initial letters of all correct (i.e. orl korrect) in 1839, and that in 1840 it was used as an election slogan for `Old Kinderhook' (see sense A b). Thence by stages it made its way into general use. Other suggestions, e.g. that O.K. represents the Choctaw oke `it is', or French au quai, or that it derives from a word in the West African language Wolof via slaves in the southern States of America, all lack any form of acceptable documentation]...

There are about 150 more lines in the entry.


I have an old encyclopedia that describes blacks as habitually retarded and only interested in sex. This OED clearly would only find documentation "acceptable" if "any" white person wrote it.

Do you have any evidence to support that ridiculous claim? I see no obvious connection between your hypothetical (you didn't provide a reference) encyclopedia and the OED. Like it or not, the OED is one of the authoritative texts in the etymology of the English language... in this, it is accepted *world wide* and by people of many diverse cultures. It has its problems, like any scholarly work, but that is to be expected. It does, on the other hand, try to be fairly complete (that is why there are so many volumes). In this context, 'acceptable documentation' means 'any kind of academically valid work'. That would include earliest written records, oral histories, translations, etc. When the OED rejects forms 'wolof', 'au quai', etc. in this manner, it means that scholars have looked at them, and found no evidence for this etymological path. It most certainly doesn't mean 'no white person wrote it'.

Of course, there are errors made in etymology, but like any empirical pursuit we must go with the existing evidence as pointing to the most likely path. I don't know what you have against the OED per se, but your comment resounds with the sort of intellectually impoverished conspiracy-theory language that is only too common these days. Yes, there are caucasion/west european/patriarichal biases in English language society today. No, this does not invalidate the entire body of scholarly work done by these societies (and furthermore, there are people working hard to redress these biases).

Let me see if I can understand the OED's point of view (written in the 1930s by people in England, not America, by the way). A newspaper in Boston in 1829 printed a humor article that specified the letters O.K. stood for Oll Korrect. Nobody in the USA at this time had ever heard the sound "okay" meaning "all right", so this was essentially a joke without a punchline. Without the word "okay" already in use, this Boston paper was essentially teasing when (per the OED's HistoricalRevisionism? theory) there was nothing to tease about.

However, that one newspaper article was so popular that people actually started saying "okay", referring to the letters "O.K.". And so many did this that people started naming other things "O.K." too, such as the Old Kinderhook Club, which backed a presidential candidate. And only then did telegraph operators start sending "OK" meaning "message received".

The problem with the OED's theory of this case is that this kind of thing does not happen. People generally do not nationally adopt a verbalization based on a single joke acronym appearing in one newspaper in one state. Figure it out, and get used to the idea that some scholarly works are wrong, and for very obvious reasons.

As late as the 1970s, white children were punished for saying things like "ain't" that black people said. But as early as the 1830s, whites all over this country had adopted the word "okay", most of them unaware where it came from. "HistoricalRevisionism?" is the word for changing the interpretation of history in ways that favor your ethnicity, and this is just another example of it. -- PhlIp

Have you checked the references given? My version of the OED cites the work by A.W. Read published in 1964. Hardly written in the 1930's - like most works like it, it is continuously updated. There is little relevance that it started in the U.K., since it attempts to cover English usage world-wide, and there is no equivalent U.S. work. I must assume, since you claim to characterize the OED's point of view above, that you have read the cited work: O.K. (&schwa.U'keI), a., sb., and v. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Also OK, o.k., ok. [App. f. the initial letters of oll (or orl) korrect, jocular alteration or colloq. pronunc. of `all correct': see A. W. Read in Amer. Speech XXXVIII (1963), XXXIX (1964), etc. The OED entry goes on to provide a string of print media entries showing the gradual increase in use.

I am not sure what you mean by the following statement: The problem with the OED's theory of this case is that this kind of thing does not happen...

Does this relate to the OED's 'position', or your characterization of that position (they do not seem to be the same thing to me). Do you mean that the scholarly community of etymologists are wrong? Do you have confounding (but properly supported) evidence? Can you provide any references to support your claims? I would be (truly) interested to see any. Of course I know what HistoricalRevisionism? is (and I did, obliquely, address that above), but it is not clear that this is what is happening here.

The OED's theory of this case is that one newspaper article started everything. Everyone else's theory is that millions of people were saying "okay", including whites, before the newspaper article was written.

Sounds like that is A.W. Read's theory, if anything, not the OED's per se.

So the Wolof language from North Africa introduced the words "jive", "hippy" and "banana" to our language. But the word "waw-kay" - the most common one they'd have said from the list, the word that millions of them would have most frequently said after being ordered by a slave master to do something - this word somehow went nowhere. Okay.

The "documentation" the OED relies on is hampered by multiple layers of individual acts of racism. First the slave system itself. Then the whites refusing to admit blacks had introduced words to our language. Then the editorialists inventing backronyms. And >then< the OED accepting all this crap as somehow normative.

The story that the word came from blacks and got backronymed makes much more sense than the fable that the word was an incorrectly spelled acronym which then got widely adopted in a time when people almost never adopted acronyms into their language.

http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu/curriculum/lm1/1/lm1_lp1_dp8.html

http://www.emich.edu/~linguist/issues/4/4-705.html

http://www.alt-usage-english.org/excerpts/fxokxxxx.html


Wolof (West African) "waw kay" = "yes indeed". Supported by Prof. J. Weisenfeld, professor of African and African-American religion at Columbia University. It was shown by Dr Davis Dalby ("The Etymology of O.K.", The Times, 14 January 1971) that similar expressions were used very early in the 19th century by Negroes of Jamaica, Surinam, and South Carolina: a Jamaican planter's diary of 1816 records a Negro as saying "Oh ki, massa, doctor no need be fright, we no want to hurt him." The use of "kay" alone is recorded in the speech of black Americans as far back as 1776; significantly, the emergence of O.K. among white Americans dates from a period when refugees from southern slavery were arriving in the north.

The OED's earliest citation is 1829, in Boston. The OED's theory of the case is that the word was invented in that one article and spread from there. The citation copied here is from 1816; the recorded dialog of an illiterate slave in Jamaica who could not possibly have read a Boston newspaper printed 13 years later. This is just one of the many citations that the OED does not consider "acceptable documentation".

This text is copied from the FAQ for the newsgroup alt.usage.english. Another copy of it goes on to note the following:

Queried about the Dalby citations, Merriam-Webster Editorial Department told me: "A word pronounced approximately 'kai' is an expression of surprise or amusement in Jamaican Creole and in Sea Islands Creole (Gullah). If you take into account the pronunciation and meaning, you'll see that it does not fit 'okay' either semantically or phonetically. There is nothing in the history of 'O.K.' or 'okay' that suggests it has an African-American origin."

There is "nothing", besides the Wolof word "waw-kay", and all the citations of blacks saying "kay" or "oh ki" before the 1820s. And of course "okay" does not fit the semantics or phonetics of a different word, the island exclamation "kai".


The idea that "okay" may have originated from the Choctaw "hoke" has been mentioned, but it seems to have received little consideration. I think it may deserve a closer look.

In Choctaw, the word "hoke" (ho-KAY)has several closely related meanings, all of which communicate a strong and/or enthusiastic affirmation. The sentence "Um achukma hoke" ("I am VERY well/good/healthy" or "I am most definitely well/good/healthy")illustrates the point. Many times the word is used by itself, again communicating a strong/enthusiastic affirmation or approval.

Second, the traditional home of the Choctaw (until Andrew Jackson "Removed" them to Oklahoma in 1831) was most of Mississippi, along with portions of Louisiana and Alabama. They were among the first to encounter whites, and enthusiastically engaged in trade with the Spanish, French and English. The appearance of "okay" in American English in the early 1800's coincides with the massive migration of whites into the Southeastern United States.

and blacks...

The charge to the original 4 editors of the O.E.D. dating back to the 1870s (before it was referred to as the O.E.D) was to document all the words of the English language. Estimated to be about 80,000 words, solicitations were sent to libraries and universities in all the English-speaking countries of the world. The requirements for entry were very specific: 1) the word had to be written on a large index type card, 2) the word had to be used in a sentence and 3) the earliest written citation had to be identified. Therefore O.E.D. always refers to the first time a word appears in print, not conversation. The first edition, before the turn of the century, ended up with about 400,000 words. The 4th edition, when it is published, will have more than 1.2 million words.

OED is a dictionary of the written word. A dictionary of the spoken word (DARE: Dictionary of American Regional English) was started in the 1960's and is due out around 2008. Hope this is helpful.

-- J.C.S.

DictionaryOfAmericanRegionalEnglish? (DARE) - Vol. I, A-C, 1985, ISBN 0-674-20511-1 ; Vol. II, D-H, 1991, ISBN 0-674-20512-X ; Vol. III, I-O, 1996, ISBN 0-674-20519-7 ; Vol. IV, P-Sk, 2002, ISBN 0-674-00884-7 .
Let's not forget the variation of m'kay, a highlight of the OfficeSpaceMovie

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