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List of Proposed Etymologies of OK (wikipedia.org)
71 points by benbreen 6 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 24 comments

I wonder if OK is a linguistic example of William Gibson's "steam-engine-time". Given the multiple plausible etymologies, is it possible that OK emerged simultaneously in many places at once, and the crossover between the different occurences cemented it in modern language?

It's not impossible, obviously, but while it was natural for steam-engines to appear when they did, there is no good reason to expect an essentially arbitrary word to be synthesised many times nearly simultaneously.

A weaker version of your hypothesis, whereby the word was synthesised once but reinforced by similar phrases or folk etymologies (leading to the current confusion) is much more plausible, however.

If two different or dissimilar word appeared, we would not have this discussion.

So you're essentially saying they're...all correct?

> hogfor ("seaworthy") Shortened to HG, then pronounced by Norwegian and Danish sailors as hah gay.

Well then.


"Oll korrect" is the only one the stands up to scrutiny.

I remember being shocked to hear my father say that he thought etymology was poppycock — after all, it was in the dictionary, so how could it be wrong! The older I grow, the more I agree with him, and this article doesn't change my mind much.

Just to clarify. The concept of words having an origin and evolving over time is nonsense?

I have so many more questions if that's what you're trying to say here.

Maybe the point was that a lot of proposed etymological theories are inaccurate? (which also seems wrong but at least slightly defensible)

Standard rule of thumb for the non-linguistically inclined: if a layperson tells you an etymology for a word and it involves a 'flash of inspiration' type moment of synthesis then four out of five times that etymology will be false.

For example, 'Council House And Violent' => chav (British slang for an anti-social lower-class person)

It's wry but it doesn't pass the sniff test. People don't tend to sit around making up words like this and even when they do other people don't adopt them. Words are nearly always born through analogy and common ground, not out of whole cloth.

There's a Wikipedia list of false etymologies in English here [1] (fair warning - a lot of unpleasant words here). A quick read of it should help train ones priors as to whether or not an etymology is likely to be true.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_false_etymologi...

I completely agree with this. I find that any etymology that has a neat little "just so" story behind it to be very suspect.

In real life words generally get made by pretty obvious metaphors (it's gotta be obvious enough for someone hearing it for the first time to get it), combining two words together or shortening an existing word.

Just today I heard that the etymology of swag is "secretly we are gay". It's hilarious and obviously not true. Backronyms are fun though

I assume (generous interpretation and not much of a stretch) that that's exactly what his father meant, and if so, his father was right. It's funny that it would even "seem wrong", but it's not wrong.

Recently published dictionaries do a much better job than they used to, so you will often see "origin unknown, poss. related to X or Y", where an older dictionary simply proclaimed the etymology. So, was the truth recently lost? Or did the lexicographers recently find evidence that their confidently proclaimed etymology might just be poppycock?

So if there are lots of cases where etymology is disputed, and there are, then not all claims can be right. Many must have been wrong, and it stands to reason that not all errors have been discovered. Hundreds of thousands of words, place names, personal and surnames, passed from mouth to mouth by mostly illiterate humans for whom X sounds like "eggs" in a game of telephone ("Chinese whispers") lasting centuries, repeatedly crossing dialect and language boundaries, multiplied by the number of human languages, and does it really seem wrong that "a lot of proposed etymological theories are inaccurate"?

If the claim were really that there are no correct etymologies, that would certainly be wrong, but if "poppycock" meant the confidence of the old dictionaries was not justified, I would say that time has vindicated his claim.

Huh, maybe I am too young and used to the recent style! Thanks for the information.

Questions like how does etymology argue that a word in said dictionary is "wrong"? Or what are your thoughts on dictionaries that go to great lengths to include good etymology on their entries, such as the OED?

I think he's referring to a specific etymology of OK (specifically, one that was in a dictionary he had).

It's definitely likely that many etymologies are disconnected from the one(s) assigned. And of course it's nigh impossible to get to the bottom of words which have multiple etymologies that stand up under scrutiny. But to say the entire thing is poppycock is like saying the entirety of recorded history is poppycock without adequate peer review / reliable sources. 8/10 use cases will find the information (contradictory or otherwise) useful.

How? I can't find any connection between "ok" and "poppycock", but it's hard to search the web for.

Funny, I misread the comment the exact same way. He was not suggesting that “ok” is derived from “poppycock”

A wonderful example of Not Even Wrong.

Funny you would use an idiomatic term like poppycock to dismiss etymology.

Q: Who gets to decide what a word means? A: When two or more people agree

>Initials of Omnis Korrecta ("all correct")

The fact that half of the rest of the entries are saying "oll korrect" makes me believe that this is the one. Especially with this example too.

>A contemporary news report of the 1866 transatlantic telegraph cable says "The following telegram has been received from Mr. R. A. Glass, Managing Director of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Limited) :— 'O.K.,' (all correct)."

- This is a quite late suggestion (from 1935)

- the letter ‘k’ is rarely used in Latin (https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/1084/why-is-the-le...)

- ‘correct’ in Latin is ‘correctus’ (https://www.etymonline.com/word/correct?ref=etymonline_cross...)

⇒ I would think that explanation is completely made up.

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