Oke is OK

People often wonder whether to write OK, okay, O.K., ok, or o.k. They’re all OK, but the last two are less so – at least in formal styles – and the first may be the most OK of all, nowadays. Some prefer okay because it looks more normal or proper, or because its inflected forms (okayed, okaying) don’t warrant an apostrophe.

The word has many apocryphal etymologies, including Latin omnis korrecta, Scottish och aye, Choctaw oke, German ohne Korrektur, French au quai, and Finnish oikea. But it’s actually an abbreviation of the deliberate misspelling oll korrect.

Monosyllablic forms such as ’kay, kay, and K are common, especially in text messages, internet chat and casual speech, while long versions – like the rhyming reduplications okie-dokie, okey-doke(y), and the Ned Flanders-y okely-dokely or okily-dokily – are also popular. Other variants include okey and the obsolete okeh.

Reading The Dain Curse last week, a 1929 detective novel by Dashiell Hammett,* I came across yet another form:

When we reached the Temple door I had to caution him: ‘Try not breathing so hard. Everything will probably be oke.’

At first I thought it might be pronounced the same, maybe with an unstressed second syllable; but apparently it’s homophonous with oak. Chambers Slang Dictionary says the adjective, as in Hammett, above, occurred in the US in the 1920s–1950s; the exclamation oke! appeared only in the 1930s.

I can’t see it coming back in style, but I guess that’s oke.

*

* See also: Dashiell Hammett on how to be a detective.

31 Responses to Oke is OK

  1. Jan says:

    “okay” looks like a word. And, after 150 years, it clearly is one!

  2. Stan says:

    I agree, Jan. When I was young I used it more than OK and assumed it was the more correct form. But they’re both fine.

  3. Helen says:

    Great post Stan! I laughed out loud (LOL?) – not bad for a dreary, wet morning in Mayo. I had always attributed the okie-dokie (which I hate, for some bizarre reason) to Homer Simpson…I should be oke with it since I am surrounded by people who use it, but I’m not. Nor am I okay with the text “K” – how difficult is it to put an “O” in front? O.K. I’m done for now.

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Okay should stay.
    Thus spoke,
    It’s oke

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Stan:

    Okay
    Should stay.
    Thus spoke,
    It’s oke

  6. Mark Allen says:

    Rodgers and Hart gave us this in the 1930s:

    “She like the free fresh wind in her hair, life without care,
    She’s broke, and it’s oke.
    Hates California, it’s cold and it’s damp,
    That’s why the lady is a tramp.”

  7. dan bloom says:

    future post for you, okay?: is it true that the word “lunch” was derived from non-English word, perhaps from the Continent, referring to “a small piece” or “to clutch”? Lunch in other words, might have been a word to describe an unscheduled, informal meal, eaten using the hands. Look into this for us when you get hungry for a new post later in the summer?

  8. Stan says:

    Helen: Prompting a laugh on a wet morning in Mayo is more than I expected this post to achieve. I think okey-doke goes back to the 1930s too, but I associate it mostly with Bill O’Herlihy. I don’t mind K in text messages so long as it’s unambiguous.

    Marc:
    When Marc
    Writes rhymes
    I hark
    Betimes:
    This bloke,
    He’s oke.

    Mark: Excellent example; I’d forgotten all about it.

    Dan: Lunch comes from luncheon, the etymology of which is uncertain. You might also be interested in Edible Geography‘s history of the practice. I don’t plan on blogging further about this.

    * * *

    For the record: Oke is also a surname, as in Vernon Lee’s short story ‘Oke of Okehurst’, which I mentioned in an old post about the word preternaturally.

  9. dan bloom says:

    Note: here in Taiwan, “karaoke” the word from Japan is translated in Mandarin Chinese are 2 Chinese characters for KA-RA (the sound of kara that is, and then OK in Roman letters so it looks like this and everyone pronounces it ……”[x] [x] -OK”

  10. Amy Stoller says:

    There are certainly some popular and respected arguments for it, but I do think it’s going too far to say that “Oll Korrect” is indisputably the origin of “okay.” Claims for Choctaw origin have been put forward and well defended, as have claims for West African origin.

  11. Ben Zimmer says:

    See Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word for much more on OK and its variants. Oke comes up on p. 149, from another 1929 source, interestingly enough. Woodrow Wilson preferred okeh, under the mistaken assumption that the word derived from Choctaw. There was also a phonograph record label called OKeh (see pp. 86-7).

  12. Ben Zimmer says:

    (And Amy, see Metcalf’s book for why the Choctaw and West African origin stories are less defensible than the Oll Korrect derivation.)

  13. Mark Allen says:

    Lunch as as a small chunk of something edible preceded lunch as a shortening of luncheon, so the former no doubt influenced the latter. I don’t recommend blogging about it, but it makes for a good discussion over sandwiches.

  14. Stan says:

    Dan, Mark: Interesting notes, thank you. (I’m hungry now.)

    Amy, Ben: I’ll have just to read Metcalf’s book. It looks very interesting. Thanks for the links, Ben; I enjoyed those excerpts.

  15. Shaun Downey says:

    Again I’ve never seen Oke other than as a Nigerian surname. I must be reading the wrong books!

  16. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Dan Bloom,

    Here in the U.S., (excluding native Japanese speakers), from my anecdotal observations, it seems like most folk pronounce the word “karaoke”, thusly—-ka-rhee-okie. (Whereas the last syllable, w/ the Japanese inflection, sounding more like ‘okai’.)

    Of course, parenthetically, the moniker “Okie” is a slang term for a native Oklahoman, likely coined during the devastating U.S. depression/ dust-bowl era of the ’30s, when thousands of desperate, and impoverished folk from this drought-plagued rural region decided to move to California in hopes of a better life.

    (I guess even back then, the old pioneering saw. “Go west, young man”, still had some credence?)

    The great country music legend, Merle Haggard, immortalized the pluck, pride, and patriotism of these salt-of-the scorched-earth mid-Westerners in his self-penned hit tune from 1969, “Okie From Muskogee”.

    This anthem-like, rousing homage to the Okies’ inner strength and steely character turned out slightly beyond just ‘okay’ for the master tunesmith, becoming an overnight smash hit on the country charts, and giving the Bakersfield CA native his entrée to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry stage, and eventually be inducted as one its most revered members.

    @Ben Zimmer. As a proud Canuck, for me, Woodrow Wilson’s “okeh” has a certain Canadian chauvinistic appeal, eh?

  17. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    The word “homophonous” is definitely a ‘beaut’, and more than your average mouthful of conjoined letters, at that.

    (For me, at first blush, it sounds a bit like the species Latinized name of a long-extinct dinosaur, perhaps a lumbering, long-necked, gentle herbivore.)

    Hmm… I would guess “elephant” and “Oliphant” (a solid Scottish/ Norse-rooted name), would qualify as an homophonous duo? (Where THAT came from, I haven’t a clue. HA!)

    The word “cacophonous” is a bit of a doozy of a word, as well. Although unlike “homophonous” w/ its implicit notion of like-sounding, or harmonious, this mild tongue-twister connotes a state of disharmony, or dissonance; quite the opposite of “homophonous”.

    ‘Hubbubphonous’, if you will. (Groan)

    Alas, quirky, odd sounding, or rarely used words, never cease to intrigue. Such is the mystique and beauty of the English language in all its many, and ofttimes, peculiar guises.

  18. joy says:

    The amount of scholarly (and not so scholarly) debate about the origin of “okay” (my preferred spelling) is amazing! A few links:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_proposed_etymologies_of_OK – no preferences, just a list with some sources

    http://c2.com/cgi/wiki?EtymologyOfOkay – rather politicized explanation of why it had to have come from Wolof (and how white historians of language could never accept that black people could come up with such a now-popular word)

    http://www.illinoisprairie.info/NutshellOK.htm – why it clearly came from Choctaw and the other explanations are silly.

    The OED goes with the abbreviation of “oll korrect,” but one of the commenters on the Wolof-source post points out that it is only a history of written English – so the use of OK for “oll korrect” could have been a riff on something already in spoken English from an earlier source.

    What’s also interesting is that okay is now in many other languages. When I realized that, at first I assumed it was borrowed from English, then I thought perhaps I was being rather linguacentric. But after reading some of the articles, in fact it seems that other languages probably did take it from English. But where we got it from still isn’t totally clear.

  19. H. S. Gudnason says:

    @ Shaun Downey: Alan Oke is a British tenor (with a Scottish residence and study connections, but I don’t know where he was born).

  20. Elizabeth says:

    ‘Oke’ reminds me of two other words that have a 1920s-1930s ring: ‘natch’ for naturally and ‘ridic’ for ridiculous, stress on the second syllable. “Don’t be ridic!”

  21. Stan says:

    Shaun: It has kept a low profile since its heyday!

    Alex: Cacophonous and homophonous are destined to end up in a nonsense verse together, maybe alongside euphonious and Polonius. What the results will sound like remains to be seen, or rather heard.

    Joy: Thanks for the links, which I’ll read when I find time, and for your thoughtful commentary. I do enjoy a good etymological muddle – or detective story.

    H. S.: It’s also an Afrikaans abbreviation for outjie, and means “fellow” or “friend” and is used as a general term of address.

    Elizabeth: It does resemble those clippings in a way. You might be interested in a piece I wrote about them: ‘Ledgebag’ is totes amaze.

  22. Cyranette says:

    I’ve not seen “oke” either. Thanks for the information, although I don’t plan on using it. Much prefer OK and okay. My sisters sometimes abbreviate that to ” ‘kay.”

  23. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Stan,

    Well, as you kind of presaged, I just happened to have just concocted a little loosely rhyming ditty, w/ both “cacophonous” and “homophonous” together, but ‘cast’ as actual flesh-and-blood ancient Romans; and the word, “euphonious”, wedged in for good measure.

    Whether this bit of fast-and-loose poesy rises (or sinks HA!) to the level of pure “nonsense”, I will defer to others to make that judgment. (Be gentle.)

    I call it, “A Confluence of the ‘Phonouses’ “*

    (Granted, a tad awkward, but it is what it is. Perhaps Dr. Seuss would approve?)

    ————————-

    Cacophonous, the Younger
    Had an insatiable hunger
    To be the most uproarious
    Resonating Roman orator of the lot

    One fine morn he brusquely accosted
    The placid, most agreeable Homophonous
    His bluster and bombast so deafening
    Just short of thunderous

    Forthwith, the fair goddess, Echo,
    Materializes out of thinnest air
    Betwixt the gobsmacked pair
    She markedly piqued, almost distraught

    She soundly scolds the loud-mouthed Cacophonous
    Then consoles the even-tempered Homophonous
    Stop!…. stop!… stop!… stop!
    This utter… utter… foolery… foolery… foolery
    You two… two… two… behave!… behave!… behave!…

    And from that fateful day
    Cacophonous, hardly euphonious,
    And the pacifist, Homophonous, once at odds
    Did their unlikely road to friendship pave

    ————————-

    (Hmm… is there an echo in here?)

    *My title is a bit of an admittedly lame riff on the great Persian poet/ mystic, Farid Ud-din Attar’s classic 12th-century long-form poetic work, “The Conference of the Birds”.

  24. wisewebwoman says:

    I think your commenters have covered all that is to be said on okay.

    Set my mind to riffing off on the opposite – no k which is used in texting, I believe.

    I also thought of KO – the ultimate punch in a boxing match, the knockout. Is that even used anymore?

    XO
    WWW

  25. Stan says:

    Cyranette: I wonder if it has vanished completely, or if there are communities out there still using it regularly. But like you, I won’t be adopting it.

    Alex: A marvellous and spirited tale. Thank you. It’s fair to say that A Confluence of the ‘Phonouses’ is now the definitive poem of its particular type. It demands to be read aloud – euphoniously, one hopes.

    WWW: No k meaning “Not OK”? Interesting. I don’t know if I’ve noticed that. KO is still used, not least in sports headlines.

  26. Sarai Pahla says:

    Thanks for an entertaining post – haven’t even had time to read through all the comments, but am sure they are equally engaging!

  27. Stan says:

    You’re very welcome, Sarai. Thanks for stopping by!

  28. […] “issues,” Orin Hargraves got funky, and Stan Carey felt groovy. On his own blog, Carey compared different ways of writing OK and discussed contrastive […]

  29. Amy Stoller says:

    Thanks, Ben, I’ll try to catch up!

  30. Jordan says:

    In Choctaw you can also say “ome”. Not sure if either form was present in precolonial times though.

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