NY Times item on origin of "O.K."

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at MST.EDU
Sat Mar 1 16:58:25 UTC 2008

      Barry Popik shared the item below with me (and a few others) and I now share it with ads-l.  The NY Times article is preceded by a few observations from Barry, to which I'll add that I too am surprised whenever "O.K." is discussed in the media without an awareness of Allen Walker Read's detailed treatment of the subject.

     Btw, there's no doubt that "O.K." preceded Van Buren's 1840 campaign for the presidency, but is there evidence that Van Buren and his supporters were aware of this earlier use of "O.K."?  I.e., could "O.K." as used in the 1840 campaign (abbreviation of "Old Kinderhook") have been thought up independently of the 1838-1839 Boston abbreviation craze?

Gerald Cohen

[introductory comments from Barry]:
...No mention of Allen Walker Read's famous series of articles in American Speech? No one at the American Dialect Society was contacted? O.K. is "a Dutch phrase for 'all right'" ?? "There is no clear answer" if O.K. comes from Old Kinderhook?
Read conclusively demonstrated that O.K. comes from a serious of humorous misspellings and initialisms (including O.W. for "all right"), popularized by newspaper editors (especially the editor of the Boston Morning Post) in 1838 and 1839. The "Old Kinderhook" use appeared a year later, in April 1940. But you'd never know that from this piece.
February 29, 2008,  5:49 pm

A Spitzer Tale Is Not 'Oll Korrect'

By Sewell Chan <http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/author/schan/>

Gov. Eliot Spitzer told a story Thursday morning about the role of President Martin Van Buren - one of his predecessors as governors of New York - in the origins of the phrase "O.K." But in venturing into the world of etymology, Mr. Spitzer offered an account that is a matter of some dispute.

Mr. Spitzer was addressing the Association for a Better New York when he told a story about how New York overcame sectional differences to build the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825.

"It happened because a fellow who was a state senator at the time who lived in the Hudson Valley, in the town of Kinderhook, by the name of Martin Van Buren challenged the orthodoxies of the moment and said, 'You know what, I actually think this might be a good idea,'" Mr. Spitzer said. He went on to add:

        A little-known fact about Martin Van Buren so that at least you take something away from today's breakfast. He went on to become president, but that's not so relevant. He contributed a word to the English language. And that word is what we use every day and that word is "O.K." When Martin Van Buren was president and he wanted to get out of the White House he would put the initials O.K. on a memorandum and what it stood for was "Off to Kinderhook." That is the derivation of the word O.K.

But is it?

The Oxford English Dictionary cites six examples of the use of the word O.K. before the Civil War, the earliest of them in a Boston newspaper in 1839. That was during the Van Buren presidency (1837-1841), but Van Buren himself is mentioned in none of those examples, which all cite O.K. as an abbreviation for "Oll Korrect," a variant of the phrase "All Correct."

A 1941 article by Allen Walker Read in The Saturday Review of Literature attributed the derivation of O.K. to the 1840 race, but in 1960, the journal American Speech published an article by Ralph T. Eubanks, "The Basic Derivation of 'O.K.'" That article found that the phrase had appeared slightly earlier.

Edward L. Widmer, a historian who is the director of the John Carter Brown Library <http://www.brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/>  at Brown University, mentioned the story about the origins of "O.K." in a 2004 short biography of Van Buren, who was a state senator, United States senator, governor, secretary of state and vice president before being elected in 1836 to succeed Andrew Jackson.

In an e-mail message, Dr. Widmer tells us that the phrase was "briefly short for 'oll korrect,' a Dutch phrase for 'all right,' but then got shifted onto Van Buren as he ran for president." Several histories state that the moniker O.K. - short for Old Kinderhook - was used by Democratic supporters of Van Buren in the 1840 campaign, when he was challenged by Gen. William Henry Harrison, a Whig, who ultimately defeated him. (Harrison went on to die within a month after taking office in March 1841.)

So "oll korrect" or "Old Kinderhook." Which was the true basis for "O.K."?

"There is no clear answer," said Joel H. Silbey, a historian at Cornell University and the author of "Martin Van Buren and the Origin of American Popular Politics" (2002). The phrase "Old Kinderhook" might have been used by Van Buren's Democratic supporters as a form of affection, he said, but it would also have been used by rival Whigs as a term of derision. "They looked upon Van Buren as an illiterate fool, and as the beginning of the downgrading of the presidency," Professor Silbey said.

As for "Off to Kinderhook," Professor Silbey said in a phone interview, "I've never heard that account."

Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that Governor Spitzer had gotten his account from a biography of Van Buren. She noted that The Encyclopedia of New York State <http://www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/encyclopedia/>  states that the use of "O.K." as a shorthand for "Old Kinderhook" "helped propel the new catchphrase to widespread acceptance." Van Buren then played with the phrase and made it his own catchphrase, signing "O.K." on his papers to mean "off to Kinderhook," Ms. Anderson said, citing the encyclopedia. She also cited the Web site of the Town of Kinderhook <http://www.kinderhook-ny.gov/Public_Documents/KinderhookNY_WebDocs/guide> .

William Safire, a former Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times who continues to write the On Language column for the newspaper's Sunday magazine, has discussed the origins of "O.K." in January 1982 <http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F70A15FA3A5C0C748DDDA80894DA484D81> , June 1982 <http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=FA0F14F6355C0C758CDDAF0894DA484D81> , February 1989 <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=950DEED61731F931A25751C0A96F948260>  and July 1991 <http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE0D81039F937A25754C0A967958260> .

Van Buren - and Mr. Spitzer - might not be pleased to know that Mr. Safire decisively concluded that "O.K." comes from "oll korrect."

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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