Since You Asked: Any word origin is OK with us

You said OK stood for "all correct" and "oll korrect." I thought it was an abbreviation of "okay." Where did "okay" come from?

— C.W.

This is one thorny thicket, C.W., and there's no smoking gun. Many theories have been put forth, some of which sound almost plausible. These include German philology, Russian slang, early shipbuilders, a Scottish expression, President Martin Van Buren ("Old Kinderhook"), railroad lore, Anglo-Saxon sailors and more.

The two we've heard most are "oll korrect," a supposed intentional misspelling of "all correct" by 19th century humorists, and "waw-kay," from the west African languages of Wolof and Bantu.

Allen Walker Read of Columbia University argued famously for "oll korrect" in 1963 and 1964.

African-American slaves were recorded saying "waw-kay" — meaning "yes, emphatically" — or something close as early as the late 18th century. Other words have come into informal American English from Wolof, including "jive" and probably "hip." Some authorities believe Wolof was a lingua franca among slaves. The term could have spread through the South and later to the North with freed or escaped slaves. But you can't prove it.

The Gullah, who lived in the Low Country region and islands off South Carolina and Georgia, used a word represented as "okey," as did, reportedly, members of the Choctaw Tribe.

So take your pick. We kind of like "waw-kay." You can Google up some good discussions on this, complete with digressions into etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary, rampant racism, closet imperialism and various conspiracies. OK?

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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