Finally, after 43 years of fretting,
I can get some sleep. The insomnia-inducing issue has been baffling humanity
for much longer — perhaps 160 years.
The matter has been energetically debated across nations, in pubs and universities,
and has spawned dozens of theories, all of them now proven complete bunk.
The truth is, it came from Old Kinderhook in the Hudson Valley. What did?
OK did. OK stands, not for oll korrect, or okah, or olla kolla, or even
och aye, OK came from Old Kinderhook, which is where the 1840 US presidential
candidate Martin Van Buren was born. The term OK was apparently used as
a sort of insiders catch phrase by Van Buren’s supporters and in
the intervening 160-odd years has spread like a slow, benign virus into
conversation in English, German, Greek, Czech, Chinese and Japanese. The
discovery was made through diligent research by a man named Allen Walker
Read, who didn’t write the book under review here. However, the account
of this epic quest for etymological satisfaction is reported in Port Out,
Starboard Home by Michael Quinion. The history of the debate and the competing
theories are all laid out and then Quinion succinctly demonstrates why
Read is right.
This is only one of the neat things you learn from this book, which is
a tour through the etymologies of dozens of common expressions. As Quinion
goes, he explodes myths and sets the record straight.
Golf is not an acronym of Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden. That was apparently
an Edwardian joke. You gotta hand it to those Edwardians for their sense
of humour. Golf apparently comes from a Dutch word, kolfe, meaning club.
Yankee comes from the Dutch surname Janke, which was common around New
York once upon a time.
I can tell you are fascinated already. You won’t be able to get your
head out of the actual book.
Scene, October 2005
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