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By Alfred de Grazia

Part Three: Working of the Mind



O. K. is also okay, okey, or okeh. It is a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. "O. K., the most successful abbreviation ever coined, in the United States or elsewhere, has been borrowed by all the languages of Western Europe and some of those of Asia." So writes the illustrious H. L. Mencken in his book on the American language. But where does it come from?

Let us resort to this author's journal:

Stylida, Naxos, March 28, 1980

Stormy weather, some rain, high winds, thick clouds low-passing, two days running.

Working on my novel Ron's Norm last night. Talking of a chapter in which Ron cites John Cohane on the pre-Christian Irish Christmastime Og Day when people engaged in drunken orgies. Ami suggested moving a word to another paragraph. It was the word "OC." I said "O. K." I looked at it, remembered the mystery of its origin, and thought "This O. K. could be OC, the most ancient Irish god-name." I read in the Oxford English Dictionary on Etymological Principles (Vol. II p. 4028 of microprint edition), "the earliest occurrence so far noted is in the Boston Transcript of 15 April 1840. In this and two examples from April and June the meaning is not clear, but the explanation oll korrect' appears on June 18..." Then, "1840 Atlas (Boston), 18 June 2/ 1 The band rode in a stage, which had a barrel of Hard Cider on the baggage rack, marked with large letters 'O. K. ' - oll korrect." I suspect that Irish immigrants, who were becoming exceedingly numerous in Boston at this time, brought the word, a folk word, with them. The use of the letters on a bandwagon and to mark a container of hard liquor can be related to an archaic festival, it would seem. Other theories of the origin of O. K. are weak, such as a misspelling by illiterates, which however goes well with the idea that the origin was among "illiterate Irishmen," rather than with the slightly later attribution to General Jackson who was not as uneducated as his detractors made him out to be - unless, which is possible, Jackson, descended of Scots-Irish, did also pick up the O. K. from the folklore of the ancient OC. Significantly, another explanation is that 'O. K. ' comes from the Oklahoma (note: oc) Choctaw (note: oc) Indian word "oke" (" it is") in an attribution of 1885. (Americans often use a simple "oke," one, not two syllables, and 'periods' may have been later additions.) It is conceivable that this "oke" (it is) is like the Yahweh (I am) and was a Choctaw god name once. Both OG and HAUE are among Cohane's half dozen key words.


The oc syllable is a straight-out affirmative in the langue d'oc population of southern France where oc meant yes, as contrasted with the langue d'oil of the North of France, which prevailed (oil becoming oui).

Returning to the Irish drink, uech, one is led to another of Cohane's basic words, haue, who he believes to have been a divinity preceding oc, and is found in Yahweh and Jove (properly pronounced in Latin). The most sacred parish in Ireland is called Aughaval, which disassembles into og/ ava/ ala.

Now H. L. Mencken comments about O. K. that "its long disputed etymology has been practically settled by Allen Walker Read." Not so, although Read wrote three articles, and Mencken one, on the subject between 1941 and 1963. He is probably correct, though, in saying that "it arose from a vogue for acronyms which developed in Boston in the summer of 1838." This would help explain the social readiness for the invention and why it quickly acquired misleading punctuation points.

I prefer the bandwagon explanation, which combines the Irish, politics, music, holiday, the god Oc, and the intoxicating drink. (Only in the 18th century did the Irish authorities finally suppress the celebration of Og Night.) O. K. was early used as a watchword and title, as the "O. K. Club," and is associated with revelry, noise-making, and carousing, all of which the early Irish contributed to American politics in some unusual degree. On April 3rd, 1840 the New York Daily Express reports, "About 9 o'clock, a procession from the 10th and other up-town wards marched down Center Street headed by a banner inscribed 'O. K. '" and on November 7, the National Intelligencer declares that "The Irish Locosfocos [a political faction] in the 6th ward [of New York City] have been parading the streets with shillelahs [batons], swearing 'O. K. ' etc." Apparently O. K. was even yet an oath of some kind. O. K. is a strong affirmative, difficult to pronounce dubiously, very definite, a password, watchword, acclamation, an expression of secular camaraderie, with its sacred pagan meaning suppressed but lending force and universal acceptance to the word. There still exist the expletives, Ugh! and Oc! (in Ireland) and Och! (in Scotland). Such was Oc, says Cohane, "once the supreme ruler of the universe in the minds and hearts of our ancestors." O. K.?


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