Ok and Okay: Fun with English Grammar

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By: Dr. Ratan Bhattacharjee

English is more or less the most popular among all the globally accepted languages but in spelling, pronunciation or meaning, English can be chaotically odd and weird in many ways. In a series of articles we may show the chaotic essence of the language though great masters like Shakespeare and Milton wrote in this language. It is the most flexible language as well as the ever expanding one. As the British expanded their colonies all over the world so the vocabulary has allowed a lot of inexplicable elements in it. Sometimes modification and re-modification made the case study more interesting. Let us begin with Ok and Okay and then Check-in and Checkout. Rest will follow.

Historically, there was much uncertainty and debate about where OK came from. OK comes in many forms, OK and okay being the most popular. Alongside them there is O.K. and o.k., which are O.K. too, though in less formal contexts the full stops may seem fussy or old-fashioned. Lowercase ok is not suitable for formal prose but is perfectly okay in casual contexts. Okay is common in speech, as is the abbreviation K or k – sometimes spelled out as kay or ’kay. And there are rarer forms like okay, okeh, and oke.

Was it from Choctaw okeh, meaning ‘it is’ or ‘it is so’, or from a mishearing of Scots och aye? How about French au quai ‘to the dock’, or the Haiti port Aux Cayes? Finnish oikea means ‘correct’ – could that be it? Or Greek óla kalá ‘all good’? Was it short for Old Kinderhook, the nickname of US politician Martin Van Buren?

In the 1960s the American etymologist Allen Walker Read showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century, a kind of fad for abbreviating certain phrases and sometimes misspelling them, like NS for ‘nuff said’ and OW for ‘oll wright’ (‘all right’). In a similar vein, OK was short for ‘oll korrect’ (‘all correct’).

OK is everywhere now – in daily speech, novels, emails and academic texts, in polls and signs, in magazine and song titles. We say ‘OK Boss’ to address our assistant. We use it to convey acceptance, delight, scepticism, decisiveness, and countless other states of mind. And that’s A-OK.

Similar curiosity is there about the use of the compounds Check-in and Checkout. Why we check in and checkout? Is the spelling of English compounds really chaotic? Or is the compound Check-in just chaotic? This strategy is so simple because word class and length are connected to many of the other meaningful aspects that play a role in English compound spelling. This makes us curious about the reason why check-in is spelled with a hyphen and checkout as a single word: It seemed arbitrary and random initially but now appears as a systematic variation between two-syllable nouns whose second part has two letters vs. two-syllable nouns whose second part has more than two letters.

There are more examples of this chaotic use of words. This is more confusing when we use lift and ride. Who knows exactly the difference between lift and ride? In American English dialect, one is far more likely to give someone a lift than a ride. If you give someone a lift, the destination is the important thing. If you give someone a ride, the ride itself is the object of the activity. All these are not known to the users of English in other countries. In this way we may draw attention to thousand words where readers are at a mess. Indians who boast of carrying on with the British legacy in using English as the lingua franca for the whole country use English more abruptly and the same word in English pronounced by a Tamil or Assamese or an Oriyan is so different that English listener may not understand their own language finally.

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