Amateur etymology

A letter to the editor (“Spreading the Word”, from Eleni M. Odoni of Cambridge MA) in the NYT Book Review of December 12:

Re Roy Blount’s review of “OK” (“The ‘O’ Word,” Nov. 21): Through debates on etymology, I have heard that the word “O.K.” was originally shorthand for ola kala: a term used by Greek sailors plying treacherous oceans, eager to tell one another that “all [is] well.” As the Italians would say, Se non è vero è ben trovato, or at least it’s not ungrammatical like the attribution to “all correct” — joking aside.

The book Blount was reviewing is the excellent OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word by Allan Metcalf (back-cover applause from Ben Zimmer and Erin McKean), which goes at great length into the history of etymologies for the word, culminating in Alan Walker Read’s nailing it down to the fanciful spelling “oll korrect” for “all correct”; Metcalf then traces the story of the word’s spread and its many uses.

This is one of the cases where the truth is much stranger than the things that people dream up — so strange, in fact, that many people simply reject it and prefer stories that seem to make more sense to them.

I’m not sure why Odoni labels all correct ungrammatical (as used as an expression of assent or as a predicative meaning, roughly, ‘satisfactory’). It’s true that the alternative all right (plus, of course OK itself) has become conventionalized in these uses, but it’s clear that all correct was once usable in these ways.

I’m hoping that the Book Review got better letters about Blount’s (enthusiastic) review than this one, with its know-nothing rejection of research and scholarship, but that it chose this one to print for its entertainment value.

As for Metcalf’s book, it’s engagingly written as well as thoroughly researched. Praise to him and Oxford University Press.


One Response to “Amateur etymology”

  1. wordconnections Says:

    I recently dealt with a pseudo-etymology of the word gossip:

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