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Sweeping away the breadcrumbs of meaning

25 May 2015

Language changes – that's a given. We do things to words to contemporise the way we use language. We do it for fun and we do it to set ourselves apart from our forebears and like it or not it does enrich the localised culture. Sometimes we do it because it connects our culture to other admired cultures but often it just happens because of the derogatory sense of fun that the practice yields.

When words change their meaning or are married to words from different cultures to create new meanings and the context is blurred or ceases to be conveyed, some people begin to lose the original meaning of words. It's not a good thing. I argue that having command of language is what gives you the right (if one can have rights) to play with words and create new contemporary memes.

It bothers me then that some people search for meaning and espouse meaning which to their way of thinking firmly closes the lid on the matter without giving credence to the fact that the origins of some words are not conclusive. In doing this the trail goes cold on what might otherwise be a very interesting study of etymology.

Take the word OK and seeming derivatives like Okay and Okie-dokie.

Etymologists tell us that the first printed evidence of OK was in 1839 where it alludes to an abbreviation of the words "oll korrect". At first you'd think, because of the bad spelling, that the alternative belief is surely more correct – where "OK" stems from the word okeh in the Choctaw language (north American Indian tribe) meaning "as it is". However apparently at that time the popular trend adopted by USA media was to deliberately mispell words in the language – a kind of humour playing on and poking fun at the contemporary use of language at the time, at the expense of those less educated in grammar and spelling of course. 

Inconclusively you could say that oll korrect may have slipped into common vernacular because the Choctaw word okeh was probably frequently (for a hundred years or so) tacked on the end of statements of resignation. You can I hope imagine a conversation going something like this.

"Now I'm living on this land and you're living on this land and we'll just have to figure that out. I'm the boss right?" says the british colonial.
"So you say, okeh," says the Choctaw person.

But there's also the theory that OK stems from early African American origins – similar to the Choctaw using a common phrase, o'kie was simply an expression of emphasis - drawing attention like an exclamation mark. 

What I'm happy to say, after my etmylogical exploration, is that OK or Okie Dokie does not mean "it's good day to die" as I was encouraged to believe in a writing group today. The connection refers to the Sioux Indian warrior Crazy Horse heroicly leading his tribe into battle shouting, "Hoka hey! It's a good day to die". Translated hoka-hey is a rallying cry of encouragement meaning something like today's the day or hurry - let's go and presumably he didn't say it's a good day to die in English.

Whether I'm oll korrect or not, I'm thinking it would be safe to say that three similar sounding expressions and meanings (okeh, o'kie & hoka-hey) easily found their way into contemporary mixed cultural usage long before we punned OK into existence with misplaced humour.

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