Grey areas in usage and etymology

July 25, 2019

It’s time for an update on my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column on language.

First up is A quick dive into ‘dived’ vs ‘dove’ – which is right, or does it depend on where you are? I outline the history and the growing acceptability of dove:

Dove is a relative newcomer, probably formed by analogy with drivedrove or strive–strove. The OED’s first citation is from 1855, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: ‘Straight into the river Kwasind Plunged as if he were an otter, Dove as if he were a beaver.’ In later editions Dove became Dived, perhaps under editorial influence.

Is ‘alright’ all right? looks at a common variant spelling but one that usage authorities disagree strongly about:

Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22.

In Where does ‘OK’ come from? I trace the curious etymology of one of the most popular words in the world:

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century.

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, I considered the book’s linguistic legacy in Orwell and the English Language:

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Finally, Simple in the correct sense of the word shows how language use is often far from simple, despite what pedants may claim or wish:

Over the centuries, simple has meant ‘humble and unpretentious’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undistinguished in office or rank’, ‘small and insignificant’, ‘bare’, ‘wretched and pitiful’, ‘lacking knowledge or learning’, ‘foolish or stupid’, ‘not complex in structure’, ‘easily done or understood’, and so on. Some of these senses shade into one another, so it’s not always obvious which one is intended.

Oke is OK

July 31, 2012

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.