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Lingowise | Origin of okay

Where did the word okay come from? Burmese hoakeh, Gambian waa-key or Scottish och-aye?

india Updated: Jan 14, 2006 15:55 IST
Lamat Rezaul Hasan
Lamat Rezaul Hasan

Ever wondered where the word okay came from? Easily the most recognisable word in the world, yet no one is quite sure of its origin. Some of the okay theorists believe the word came from okeh (American Choctaw language), some others think there is a Liberian connection — oke. But then we also have a Burmese hoakeh, Gambian waa-key, Scottish och-aye and a Greek ola kala!

Almost everyone seems to have a take on okay. If not the language, the origin is attributed to men of fame, whose initials had an OK. For instance, it is believed Keokuk (after whom an island is named in Iowa) was sometimes referred to as Old Keokuk, he's all right, and the initials OK, came to mean the same thing.

For us okay is a term of approval or assent, often written as OK, O.K., ok, okay, or more informally as simply kay or k or even okey dokey. When used to describe the quality of a thing, it denotes acceptability. However, its usage can also be strongly approving; as with most slang, its usage is determined by context.

The Oxford English Dictionary has its first quotation from 1839, “a jocular alteration of the initial letters of all correct (ie orl korrect)”. In English the acronym OK might be used as either adverb, adjective, verb, or noun.

Here are a few usages from the Oxford English Dictionary: I hope the children are okay. (I hope the children are all right); I think I did OK in the exam. (I think I did well, but not too well, on the exam); He is OK. (He is good).

The context OK takes also depends on how it is pronounced. If pronounced with a slightly hesitant end-tone, it gives the impression one does not completely understand. So what’s your take on okay?

First Published: Jan 14, 2006 15:45 IST