This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-10-05, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistcs Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.
In Boston and New York, around 1838 and 1839, there was this slang trend to take common two-word phrases, intentionally misspell them at the initial letters of each word and then use those new initial letters as abbreviations for the phrase.
For instance, K.G. was used for “know go”, K.Y. for “know yuse” and N.C. for “nuff ced”. All of these slang phrases died out except one: O.K. for “oll korrect”.
Why this single example lives on and is so wide-spread isn’t quite clear. There’s a theory that Martin Van Buren’s 1840 election had something to do with it. He was nicknamed Old Kinderhook after his birthtown and there was a New York City organization supporting his re-election called the O.K. Club. It got some national-level attention, even though he lost.
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson spelled it “okeh” on the assumption that it was related to the Choctaw okeh meaning “it is so”. The spelling “okay” showed up in 1929 and quickly became the more popular spelling (besides just “OK”, which is currently in the lead).
So the next time someone gets pedantic at you about how to spell this word, you can refute them with a historical argument. Or, as always, refute them more fundamentally that language pedantry is kind of sad and we should be descriptivist, not proscriptivist and they should just take a seat. Oll korrect?
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