OKAY: everything’s just fine

okayI never think about the word okay.   I just use it regularly without much thought.    Garner’s Modern American Usage says the term is a casualism, meaning that it’s not really an accepted word in good usage.  But I think Garner may be a little out of date with that thought.   In today’s experience of speaking and writing the term is used with frequency, and I suspect that most people accept it as being a normal part of our American English language.

The term has an interesting history.  Being from Upstate New York, I have always subscribed to the story that it was an abbreviation referring to President Martin  Van Buren.   According to legend, Van Buren, who came from a lovely Hudson River community called Kinderhook,  was referred to by his political supporters as “Old Kinderhook.”  In a way, it’s a phrase that preceded the popular “POTUS.”   When people made reference to him they frequently shortened the term to “O.K.”  It caught on, and before you knew it, the term was being used in a positive way to apply to everything that was just fine.

The other more scholarly etymology of the word, however, takes it back to the Choctaw language.   The members of the tribe had a term which could be spelled “okeh” which meant “it is so.”    Lots of scholars prefer to employ this explanation, and it may have credibility.

The interesting thing about the term okay, is the variety of ways we have come to spell it.  Long before Twitter rolled around the word was shortened to such spellings as O.K., ok, and Ok.  It is used so frequently in notes, rather than long written pieces, that the abbreviations are, perhaps, more familiar to most people than the actual spelling out of the word.  It can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a verb…and even a noun.   That’s why I say that it’s a word that happens in our language without a great deal of thought being given to it.  Its universal acceptance and recognition speaks for itself.

Many times the term isn’t even written.   The popular signal for okay is the finger gesture pictured above, in which the letter “o” is captured.   It is interesting to see that the term and the gesture have found their way into other languages, making it a somewhat universal in its acceptance.

It would seem to me that the origin of OK is not really important.   Neither is the attempt to define the “correct” spelling of the word.  The point is that it’s a great word which has a rich and respected place in our language.  You  might say it’s quite okay.


Photo Credit:  Hungary

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