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OK guy dies

Posted by ESC on October 23, 2002

Etymologist Allan Walker Read, 96
By Claudia Luther

October 21, 2002

Among etymologists, Allen Walker Read, 96, who died Wednesday in New York, was known as the man who discovered the original usage of "OK."

His quest began in 1941 when, as a former research assistant for the Dictionary of American English, he wanted to help out his friends still working there by finding an earlier reference to OK to "add some freshness to their entry."

He found that "OK" didn't stem from the Choctaw word okeh or oke - a popular theory of the time. Nor did it come from olla kalla, Greek for "all good." Or any number of other sources.

Knowing that the first general usage of OK began in the 1840s, Read paged through newspapers from that decade. He was able to document that OK stood for "Old Kinderhook," a reference to President Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, N.Y.

Democrats supporting Van Buren dubbed themselves the "Democratic O.K. Club," Read found. Later, a writer supporting Van Buren asked, "Will you not say O.K.? Go ahead!"

Years later, Read dug deeper and found an earlier source for the word - a Boston newspaper in 1838 that playfully used initials for such phrases as G.T.D.H.D. (give the devil his due) and O.K.K.B.W.P. (one kind kiss before we part). In this vernacular, O.K. stood for "all correct," spelled just for fun as "oll korrect." Old Kinderhook and "oll korrect" have long been the first accepted sources for the word.

Read, who was born in Winnebago, Minn., on June 1, 1906, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa and a master's degree from the University of Iowa and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

He taught English at Columbia University for 29 years until retiring in 1974. He consulted on many dictionaries, including American College, Funk & Wagnalls Standard and Random House.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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