Language Birthers


Shakespeare birthers believe that anyone but the Bard wrote the plays and sonnets.

Birther is an excellent word, invented about a decade ago to designate those who claimed, against all evidence, that Barack Obama was born in Africa (or Asia — anywhere outside U.S. territory) and thus prohibited by Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution from holding the office of president of the United States. (Nobody claimed that he had not attained the age of at least 35 years, or had not been a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years, the other Constitutional requirements for the presidency.)

As a label for those who held (and perhaps still hold) that contrary-to-fact view of Obama, birther is excellent, pointing to the crux of the matter (the birthplace) and identifying which side is which, without stigmatizing connotations for those with that label. I think it’s such a useful word, in fact, that it should be applied to other similar situations, in literature and language.

For the essence of the birther argument is that a particular person could not possibly hold the necessary qualifications for a particular office — an office of high regard with a seemingly low origin.

The all-time target of targets for birthers is surely William Shakespeare, whose name is associated as author of the greatest works in English literature. Who could have written with such genius? Surely not the poacher from Stratford. Those plays and sonnets must have been written by someone at home in the highest levels of the English nobility: someone like Edward de Vere, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Edward Dyer, the Earl of Rutland, William Stanley — the list goes on and on.

What Shakespeare birthers all have in common is a belief that noble literature must have been written by nobles. What doesn’t seem to occur to them is that all the English nobility of the Elizabethan age, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put together anything near what this Shakespeare could do. In general, the education of a nobleman is just as unlikely to produce a Shakespeare as is the education of a commoner — practically zero in both cases.

Birthers abound in language too, especially in matters of etymology. A great word should have a great origin. If it doesn’t, the temptation is great to impute one. Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word: the expression OK, now often rendered in less conspicuous form as okay.

Thanks to the scholarship of Allen Walker Read, and perhaps thanks a little to my 2012 book on OK, it is now clear that the expression first appeared in the Boston Morning Post of March 23, 1839, like this: “o. k. = all correct.”

That’s right. Our greatest word began life as a joke: All doesn’t begin with o, and correct doesn’t begin with k. Even as OK quickly became included in the 1840 presidential campaign, the stigma of an illiterate origin became all the more evident.

So what did people do? They became birthers. They looked at other languages to find dignity for OK. In the 19th century, W.S. Wyman, a professor of English at the University of Alabama, demonstrated to his satisfaction that OK came from the Choctaw Indian language. (That was never authenticated.) Our word has also been attributed to a Chicago baker, O. Kendall, and to a Boston baker named Otto Kimmel. Expressions like OK have been found in languages as diverse as French, German, Finnish, and Greek.

That’s a reason OK has been so readily absorbed in so many other languages, but it’s not to say that the birthers are right.

Can you think of other words under attack by language birthers?

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