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Allen Walker Read, 96; Word Scholar Traced Origin of 'OK'

October 20, 2002|Claudia Luther | Times Staff Writer

Among etymologists, Allen Walker Read, who died Wednesday in New York City at the age of 96, was known as the man who had discovered the origin of the term "OK."

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

What he found was that "OK" didn't stem from the Choctaw word okeh or oke -- a popular theory of the time. Nor did it come from "aux cayes" -- the Haitian port of Aux Cayes from which premium rum was exported. Or olla kalla, Greek for "all good." Or Orrin Kendall, who manufactured a better-than-average Army biscuit. Or any number of other sources.

Knowing that the first general use of OK began in the 1840s, Read paged through old newspapers from that decade. He was able to document -- and documentation is the key among etymologists -- that "OK" stood for "Old Kinderhook," a reference to President Martin Van Buren, a native of Kinderhook, N.Y., who ran unsuccessfully for reelection in 1840.

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!" This, Read wrote in 1941, was the origin of the word that later became ubiquitous in almost every language and throughout the world.

Much to the consternation of his fellow, begrudgingly admiring etymologists, the issue seemed settled.

Years later, when another academic found an earlier use, Read was forced to dig deeper. He found an even earlier source -- 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.

Thus Read remained the "OK" man, a notoriety that, by age 83, he told the New Yorker magazine in 1989, he was "almost a little tired of."

Read, who was born in Winnebago, Minn., on June 1, 1906, earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa (then known as Iowa State Teachers College) and a master's from University of Iowa and was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. An English professor at Columbia for 29 years before retiring in 1974, he also was a consultant on many dictionaries, including American College, Funk & Wagnalls Standard, Random House of the English Usage and others.

But he did not believe that dictionaries should be final arbiters of correct usage.

"The great danger in the use of dictionaries is that they may come to be thought of as straitjackets that prevent the swinging, free enjoyment of the mother tongue," he wrote in Consumer Reports, which had asked him to make a recommendation of a dictionary. According to the New Yorker, the Consumer Reports article brought Read the most scathing criticism of his academic career from readers who called him "a wrong-side-up pedant" and "standardless sociologist of language."

But Read stuck by his guns.

"Standards are a personal matter, and any attempt to impose them on others is fraught with great danger," he wrote in Magazine Word Study in 1965. "Anyone who tries to defend 'the treasure of our tongue' should recognize that a valuable part of the treasure is the colloquial element, localisms and slang."

Extending this theory, he believed that everything changed all the time. Thus he developed a "strong dislike for what he calls 'absolutisms,' such as 'perfect,' 'correct,' 'certain,' 'pure,' 'total,' 'true,' 'final,' 'ultimate,' " New Yorker writer Michelle Stacey wrote in her 1989 piece.

Take, for example, the arbitrariness of the name "Rockies," now an absolute. Read found that in 1804 the Rockies were called the Northern Andes and that other names given to the range were Stony, Shining and Enchanted -- all perfectly good names that now seem odd.

Or take, for another example, the word "liberal." President Reagan took this very good word and turned it into something "dreadful," Read said.

Read called this phenomenon a "semantic blockage," something of great interest to him but one that, alas, he never brought to the level of academic fruition that he intended. The other lifelong project that he didn't finish was a comprehensive dictionary of "Briticisms." Though he had boxes and boxes of files on the subject in his apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, including files that explored the differences among old bean, a gent, a bloke, a chap, a cad, a toff and a lad, he was not able to finish this momentous project.

Read throughout his life grappled with what language should and could be to a people. In an essay he wrote as a forward in Funk & Wagnalls, he recited this allegory from psychologist Hadley Candril:

Three baseball umpires were discussing how they made their decisions. The first one said, "Some's balls and some's strikes and I calls 'em as they is." The second umpire said, "Some's balls and some's strikes and I calls them as I sees 'em." Then the third umpire said, "Some's balls and some's strikes but they ain't nothin' till I calls 'em."

Read liked to think of himself as the middle umpire.

Read's wife of 49 years, semantics scholar Charlotte Schuchardt, died in July. They had no children.

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