The "Zero Killed" Rumor
It has been suggested that in World War II the term "zero killed" was used when a unit suffered no casualties in combat, and that this was then shortened to 0K. This proposed etymology is grossly anachronistic, since by this time the term had been widely used for a full century.
The same theory has also been applied to Gen. Custer's telegraphed reports of platoon casualties whereby OK "oh key" meant "0 (zero) key (killed)". It may therefore be an acronym for no killed in a platoon AKA P0K or "platoon fit to fight", a common telegraph message. However, this is also anachronistic, as Custer was born more than 8 months after OK appeared in the Boston Morning Post.
Earliest documented examples of O.K.
The earliest claimed usage of okay is a 1790 court record from Sumner County, Tennessee, USA discovered in 1859 by a Tennessee historian named Albigence Waldo Putnam, in which Andrew Jackson apparently said:
- "proved a bill of sale from Hugh McGary to Gasper Mansker, for a Negro man, which was O.K."
However, the record is hand-written rather than typed, and James Parton's 1860 biography of Jackson suggested—and Woodford Heflin's (the Dictionary of American English staffer in charge of the OK entry) 1941 photographic analysis confirmed—that it is really a poorly written O.R., which was the abbreviation used for Order Recorded.
- The above is from the Providence Journal, the editor of which is a little too quick on the trigger, on this occasion. We said not a word about our deputation passing "through the city" of Providence.—We said our brethren were going to New York in the Richmond, and they did go, as per Post of Thursday. The "Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells", is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the Journal, and his train-band, would have his "contribution box," et ceteras, o.k.—all correct—and cause the corks to fly, like sparks, upward.
Read gives a number of subsequent appearances in print: 7 were accompanied ("glossed") with variations on "all correct" such as "oll korrect" or "ole kurreck"; 5 appeared with no accompanying explanation, suggesting that the word was expected to be well-known to readers and possibly in common colloquial use at the time.
A year later, supporters of the American Democratic political party claimed during the 1840 United States presidential election that it stood for "Old Kinderhook". "Kinderhook" was a nickname for a Democratic presidential candidate, Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, NY. "'Vote for OK' was snappier than using his Dutch name." In response, Whig opponents attributed OK, in the sense of "Oll Korrect", to Andrew Jackson's bad spelling.
The country-wide publicity surrounding the election appears to have been a critical event in okay's history, widely and suddenly popularizing it across America.
However, and importantly for one candidate etymology, earlier documented examples exist of Africans in America using phonetically identical or strikingly similar words in a similar sense to okay. 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."
And in 1784:
- "Kay, massa, you just leave me, me sit here, great fish jump up into da canoe, here he be, massa, fine fish, massa; me den very grad; den me sit very still, until another great fish jump into de canoe;..."
Likely Stood for a Variation of "All Correct" such as "Oll Korrect"
A wide variety of etymologies have been proposed for okay. None is unanimously agreed upon. However, most are generally agreed to be unlikely or anachronistic.
Allen Walker Read, revisiting and rebutting his own work of 20 years earlier, contributed a major survey of the early history of okay in a series of six articles in the journal American Speech in 1963 and 1964. He tracked the spread and evolution of the word in American newspapers and other written documents, and later the rest of the world. He also documented controversy surrounding okay and the history of its folk etymologies, both of which are intertwined with the history of the word itself.
A key observation is that, at the time of its first appearance, a broader fad existed in America of "comical misspellings" and of forming and employing acronyms and initialisms. These were apparently based on direct phonetic representation of (some) people's colloquial speech patterns. Examples at the time included K.Y. for "know yuse" and N.S.M.J. for "'nough said 'moung[sic] gentlemen", "Bosting" for "Boston" and "Vell vot of it!".
- "The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 ... OFM, "our first men," and used expressions like NG, "no go," GT, "gone to Texas," and SP, "small potatoes." Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, "oll wright," and there was also KY, "know yuse," KG, "know go," and NS, "nuff said."
The general fad may have existed in spoken or informal written American English for a decade or more before its appearance in newspapers. OK's original presentation as "all correct" was later varied with spellings such as "Oll Korrect" or even "Ole Kurreck". Deliberate word play was associated with the acronym fad and was a yet broader contemporary American fad.
- George W. Stimpson. (1934) "Nuggets Of Knowledge"
- James Parton. (1859-1860) "Life of Andrew Jackson"
- Heflin, Woodford A. (1941). 'O.K.,' but what do we know about it?. American Speech, 16 (2), 87-95.
- The Economist, 2002.10.24, "Allen Read, obituary"
- Read, Allen W. (1963) The first stage in the history of "O.K.". American Speech, 38 (1), 5-27.
- Read, Allen W. (1963). The second stage in the history of "O.K.". American Speech, 38 (2), 83-102.
- Read, Allen W. (1963). Could Andrew Jackson spell?. American Speech, 38 (3), 188-195.
- Read, Allen W. (1964). The folklore of "O.K.". American Speech, 39 (1), 5-25.
- Read, Allen W. (1964). Later stages in the history of "O.K.". American Speech, 39 (2), 83-101.
- Read, Allen W. (1964). Successive revisions in the explanation of "O.K.". American Speech, 39 (4), 243-267.
- Dr Jim Fay. (2007) The Choctaw Expression "Okeh" and the Americanism "Okay"
- Cecil Adams, What does "OK" stand for?
- Mike Todd, Where did OKAY come from?
- Read, Allen W. (1963). The first stage in the history of "O.K.". American Speech, 38 (1), 5-27.
- Mike Todd, Where did OKAY come from?
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