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4 mins

Richard Dawkins Reviews Blinkist, Says “It’s OK”. Here’s a Brief History of the Word

Ok is one of the most universal words but where does it come from?
by Caitlin Schiller | Sep 7 2017

BBC Radio4 recently interviewed Blinkist’s cofounder, Niklas Jansen, for a You & Yours episode on tech trends in publishing. As part of the show, the BBC solicited opinions on the micro-reading apps in question from a number of high-profile thinkers. Blinkist was given a once over by none other than well-known atheist, biologist, and author, Richard Dawkins.

Dawkins reviewed the key insight summary to his own work, The Selfish Gene, while we at Blinkist braced for a gutting review. But it never came. When asked for his candid appraisal of Blinkist, Dawkins replied, “It’s ok.”

Frankly, we were thrilled.

At first glance the word “ok” (also arguably the most frequently spoken on the planet) might not seem like such a big deal. Coming from an intellectual and renowned polemicist like Richard Dawkins, however, “ok” seems like high praise indeed. As word fanciers, we think that the history of the word “ok”—at once jokey, murky, and hotly contested—is pretty interesting, too.

Legend has it that “ok” arose from the primordial linguistic goo somewhere between mid-nineteenth-century Boston, Choctaw country USA, and West Africa.

Today’s most widely accepted theory comes from lexicographer Allen Walker Read’s 1964 articles in The Journal of American Speech. In it, Read reports that ok was born of an 1838 fad amongst Bostonites who took a brief, feverish shine to creating acronyms based on colloquial speech patterns. Popular expressions included NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.” Many of the abbreviated expressions were comically exaggerated misspellings, which counted as high humor for the time. The hero of this story, “ok,” is the shortened version of “orl korrekt.” Comical misspelling, indeed.

Another popular theory of ok’s origin links it to the Choctaw—people native to today’s modern American states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This etymology appeared in reputable sources including Webster’s, New Century, and Funk & Wagnalls until the 1960s, when Read’s Boston fad theory won out. It should be noted, however, that even Read assented that the Choctaw origin was possible.

“Some believe that the Boston newspaper’s reference to OK may not be the earliest. Some are attracted to the claim that it is of American-Indian origin. There is an Indian word, okeh, used as an affirmative reply to a question. Mr Read treated such doubting calmly. “Nothing is absolute,” he once wrote, “nothing is forever.”

The last believable option for the birthplace of ok is with Black slaves of West African descent. Here, ok maps to a related word meaning “all right, yes indeed” in the Wolof and Mandingo languages, but there isn’t sufficient historical evidence to confirm this theory.

Unverifiable but pleasant possible origin stories trace ok back to Greek harbors, where sailors would purportedly mark the cargo that was ready to ship with “ola kala,”—Greek for “it is good.” And finally, Scots have their own tentative claim on ok if we can believe it to be a natural progression from the ebullient affirmative, “och aye!”

The world may never know from whence “ok” definitively comes, but we’re okay with that—and with the mild approval of an intellectual titan like Richard Dawkins.

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