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Why Early Etymologists Embarrassingly Err

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Martin Van Buren was nicknamed after his birthplace, but that wasn’t the first use of OK.

You would think that someone closest in time and place to the emergence of a new word would be the best authority about its origin. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Well, it may stand to reason, but in case after case it doesn’t stand to fact. Time and again the earliest etymological pronouncements about the origin of a word are just plain wrong.

Take the case of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word — OK. Thanks to the indefatigable research of the late Allen Walker Read, we know for sure that its first appearance was in print, in Boston, on the second page of the Boston Morning Post, on Saturday, March 23, 1839. We find it in a supposedly humorous editorial, where it’s explained immediately after, in parentheses: “o.k. (all correct).”

But from 1840 until the 1960s, when Read published a series of articles in the journal American Speech about his discovery, pundits and professors latched on to other explanations.

These were plausible enough. The year 1840 was a presidential-election year, and Democratic “O.K. Clubs” formed around the nation in support of the incumbent, Martin Van Buren. Why? Well, he was from Kinderhook, N.Y., and in 1840 was known as “Old Kinderhook.” The only problem is that that nickname was invented for the 1840 election, not before, so the abbreviation of “all correct” led to “Old Kinderhook,’” and not vice versa.

Then there was another explanation abroad, also in 1840, having to do with former president Andrew Jackson, Van Buren’s predecessor and backer. According to an anti-Van Buren newspaper article early in 1840, Jackson was so illiterate that he would mark his approval of a document with the letters O.K., meaning “all correct” in his idiosyncratic orthography. Fits with the Boston Morning Post explanation of the abbreviation, doesn’t it?

But notice that the story comes a year later than 1839 — and as a matter of fact, Jackson was a perfectly good speller. That 1840 article was a hoax. Yet somehow it led to the practice of using O.K. on documents, which we still follow today.

Why didn’t the early etymologists know better? I think the answer is, they heard or saw it for the first time in a particular place and presumed it was the origin, not looking back beyond that place. So looking back after the 1840 election (which Van Buren lost to “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” William Henry Harrison), anyone looking for the origin of OK could be pardoned for assuming that Van Buren was known as Old Kinderhook well before March 23, 1839, or that Jackson had established the custom of approving documents with OK well before that date. Both seem likely at first glance, but Read’s exhaustive research shows it wasn’t so.

In fact, both the Old Kinderhook and the OK on documents were important stages in the development of OK into the word we know nowadays. They just weren’t the first.

Another example, Uncle Sam, comes in the new December 2015 issue of Gerald Cohen’s self-published Comments on Etymology. The journal devotes 18 single-spaced pages to untangling the origin of Uncle Sam and giving proper credit to the independent scholar Barry Popik for his major role in figuring it out.

(For information on Comments on Etymology, email Cohen at  gcohen@mst.edu)

It had long been thought that Uncle Sam as a term for the American government came into use during the War of 1812. Until recently, the received story went like this:

There was a certain Samuel Wilson of Troy, N.Y., who provided meat for the U.S. Army. The meat was in barrels stamped U.S., which of course indicated that they were U.S. government property. Soldiers joked that the meat came from “Uncle Sam” (referring to one Samuel Wilson), and that’s how the name came into being.

So well established was this story that Congress in 1961 passed a resolution in Sam Wilson’s honor, naming him “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.”

But in 2008, Popik shot down the Sam Wilson story by finding an example of Uncle Sam in an 1812 issue of the Bennington (Vt.) News-Letter. Sam Wilson didn’t begin delivering meat to the Army till 1813. Subsequently, a sailor’s diary from 1810 was found, also referring to Uncle Sam as we know him today.

Once again, it’s not that Sam Wilson didn’t play a part in spreading the name Uncle Sam, just that he wasn’t the first to do it.

Similar antedatings have been found for jazz, hot dog, and Windy City (Chicago).

(And if you want the latest word — in detail — on jazz, Cohen has just self-published a 193-page book, Origin of the Term “Jazz,” in a first printing of 80 copies, available for $25 plus $10 for mailing from the author at Dept. of ALP, Missouri S&T, Rolla, MO 65409. Make checks payable to Missouri S&T. The book is published as a nonprofit, and if any money is earned, Cohen says, he will donate it to the unvirsity for scholarships. )

If there’s a moral in this, it’s that present-day etymologists have work to do, and they need to look behind supposedly closed doors.

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