Make Your Editor Cry: Is OK okay?

Make Your Editor Cry: Is OK okay?

The Associated Press insists on the two-letter spelling. The Chicago Manual of Style says either spelling is okay, but that the “okay” spelling looks more like a word than “OK.”

Personally? I think “OK” looks too much like the abbreviation for Oklahoma and “okay” looks more like a real word.

But why the debate? What does okay really mean? Where did it come from? The expression is a very recent edition to the English language, actually.

Daniel Webster first published his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 but people really didn’t care about proper spelling for many decades to come. It’s hard for us to imagine in the days of automated spell checking and autocorrect, but in the days of the telegraph when it sounded like an S it was always an S (three short dots) and when it sounded like a K then it was always a K (dash dot dash). Back then, they hardly ever bothered with a fickle letter like C (dash dot dash dot). The S and the K were shorter by one stroke and made definite consonant sounds when translated. Likewise, if there was a schwa sound vowel–like the A in all, the O in dog, the second E in celebrate, the I in president, or the U in campus– it was always an O (dash dash dash). Superfluous letters were likewise dropped from words. Why “care” when you can “kar” instead and get the message out faster?

I explained all that to explain this. The abbreviation “OK” (dash dash dash [pause] dash dot dash) was born in America in the 1830s as an abbreviation for a telgraphic misspelling of “all correct” spelled “ol korekt.” (As a sidebar, you wouldn’t want to use “OK” in a fiction novel set before the 1830s in the US. The expression didn’t exist as part of the language before then.) OK was an acknowledgment that the entire reassembled previous transmssion was good to go. Boston journalists are credited with “OK” along with many other oddities. For example, once upon a time when a news article was complete journalists used to end it with the notation “-30-” every single time because the article would likely have to be transmitted in parts over the wire.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the “okay” spelling first appeared in 1895 in an Australian publication. So again, if you are writing a novel, you probably shouldn’t use the “okay” spelling before at least 1895 at a minimum.

After the turn of the century in 1919, H.L. Mencken wrote about Woodrow Wilson using the spelling “okeh,” but thankfully that one didn’t catch on. In 1936, Martin Van Buren–who was born in Kinderhook, NY and thus had the nickname “Old Kinderhook”–ran for president using the campaign slogan “Vote for OK.” He called his campaign supporters the “OK Club.” He was president from March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1841 and the rest of the story is that all that political activity firmly established “OK” in the American English lexicon.

But how to spell it properly?

Both spellings peacefully coexist today. Use whichever you like as long as you avoid anachronism. Or defer to your editor’s preferred style or publisher’s preference. I’m not sure it’s worth going to the mattresses one way or the other.

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