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“Okay” -- An African Word

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The African word “okay” is a universal language masterpiece and easily takes first prize among all English words for usage and usefulness. The Euro-American linguist R. Claiborne (“Our marvelous Natural Tongue”) is to be applauded for having the courage to say: “and its source was unquestionably one of various West African expressions such as o-ke or waw-ke, meaning O.K.

It is surely a major linguistic irony that this expression, virtually the trademark of Americans abroad, should derive neither from English nor from any other European tongue, but from the lips of a minority with which most other Americans still prefer to associate as little as possible.”

Some say that “okay” is an Anglicization of the word for “good” in Ewe (a kwa speaking African tribe inhabiting both sides of the border of Ghana and Togo) or Wolof (Senegal and Gambia). These West African languages were spoken by many of the slaves brought to the Southern USA.

The African origin of “okay” was well-known to Black Americans during my boyhood days in Wilson and Greensboro, North Carolina. Without fanfare, this piece of history would “pop out” of conversations in the typical low key way Black folks mention bits and pieces of their monumental Afrocentric history. They were quite aware that White etymologists were in a “dog fight” to claim “okay” as originating somewhere within the White culture.

For example, most Eurocentric reference books say that of the dozens of claims to origin, the explanation with the most authoritative backing is that it derives from the O.K. Club, formed in 1840 by partisans of Martin Van Buren. Otherwise, practical all White “authorities” said that “okay” originated in the USA but of uncertain origin.

(That is always a clue that something is probably derived from Africans). The fact that some credit it to Choctaw Indian Okeh (“it is so and in no other way”) points to the possible influence Africans had on Amerindians. Because of my intense interest in studying the story of words, I get the opportunity to constantly see how great Black contributions are stolen and then how White authorities engage in exhaustive discussions on which one of them came up with it. Nevertheless, their lies are ingenious.

Where the naîve become fooled is that, except for not giving “okay” an African origin, most things authorities say about okay are true -- that it has spread to almost every country on earth; that it is probably the most widely used single term in human speech; and that it is the most widely known and etymologized of all Americanisms.

There is something about “okay’s” connotative meanings (the suggestive meaning other than the defined meaning) that give it universal appeal. Examples include “we agree, approve, confirm;” or “we think it is delightful and attractive.”

However, in one of its original African senses, Okay referred to evil “witchcraft.” “Okay” is the most grammatically versatile of words -- serving as an adjective (“your performance was O.K.”); verb (“will you O.K. this request?”); noun (“I would like your O.K. on this”); interjection (“O.K., I’ve got the point”); and adverb (“our team did O.K.”). It is used for casual assent (“Are you ready?” “O.K.”); for showing a sort of endorsement (“the Lakers were O.K.”); for displaying enthusiasm (“O.K.!); as a more or less meaningless filler of space (“O.K. everybody, let’s do it”); and for giving up (“O.K., I quit”).

The main idea to keep in mind is that The Meaning Of A Word Depends Upon The Situation In Which It Is Used. But studying the history of a word can also give great insight into the people who originated it and to people who try to explain its origin and meaning.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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