Word Nerd: On the origin of OK and other very American words

As July 4th marks American Independence Day, I’m taking the opportunity of looking at the origins of three words connected to Americans. In fact, the designation American for our neighbour to the south angers many people in Central and South America who feel that the United States has expropriated a designation that belongs to everyone living in the Americas.

Other designations were considered such as the awkward United Statesians, Freedonians and Columbians, but it was decided at the Continental Congress assembled on June 7, 1776 to opt for the term American. The term America itself was created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller who named the continent after Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci in 1507.

While it is ironic that the United States of America owes its designation to Vespucci, seeing that he never set foot on American soil, it is also interesting that one of most used terms to describe Americans probably owes its origin to the Dutch. Most etymologists believe that the term Yankee originated from the name Janke, a diminutive of Jan, that was used disparagingly by the British to refer to unsophisticated Dutch settlers in American colonies. It later became used to refer to provincial dwellers in New England. It is believed that the lyrics to the song Yankee Doodle were penned by a British army surgeon to deride the provincial revolutionaries. In other words, when Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony and stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni, the idea here is to mock the American’s lack of sophistication. Macaroni, at the time, was considered to an example of haute cuisine emanating from continental Europe. So Yankee Doodle (doodle means “simpleton”) tries to emulate the urbane behaviour of the British by putting a feather in his cap and deluding himself that it represents macaroni.

The term Yankee was used by British commander James Wolfe in a 1758 letter and in it he leaves no doubt about his disdain for the colonials, some who were then serving in the British forces: “The Americans are.. the dirtiest most contemptible cowardly dogs that you can conceive. They fall down in their own dirt and desert by battalion, officers and all. Such rascals… are rather an encumbrance than any real strength to an army.” Notwithstanding the attempt of the Brits to mock, the term Yankee during the American Revolution was used by the American soldiers as a boast and Yankee Doodle became the marching song of the American Revolution.

Of all the American contributions to the English language, none is as ubiquitous as one that is often transmitted in only two letters —OK. American journalist H.L-Mencken described it in his 1919 tome The American Language as “the most shining and successful Americanism ever invented” and reported that US troops deployed overseas during WWII found it already in use by Bedouins in the Sahara to the Japanese in the Pacific. Since then it has spread to every corner of the world.

To understand the origin of “okay” we have to go back to the penchant for initialisms in America in the 1830s. Much like the Internet style where phrases such as “in my opinion” and “on the other hand” become “imo” and “otoh” respectively, in that era, phrases such as “give the Devil his due” might be rendered  as GTDHD. But by the end of the decade the fad for initialisms faded and the only ones used were OK and NG, which could stand for “no go” or “no good.” There also was the fashion of deliberate misspellings in humorous writing. Many American humorists from the 1820s on adopted as public personae uneducated country bumpkins who expressed their ideas in rural dialects rendered obtuse by deliberate misspellings. Hence “all right’ was transformed to “O.W.” on the basis of “oil wright”; “no use” was sometimes rendered as “K.Y.,” “know yuse.” In this context, OK was fashioned after “oyl korrect” by Charles Gorden Greene, the editor of Boston Morning Post on March 23, 1839. In any case, by the middle of the 1840s OK was firmly entrenched.

By the way, it is now OK to use OK in Scrabble. Hope you had a joyous 143nd birthday America.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

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