The Oxford English Dictionary, Martin Van Buren, and the Telegraph

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2012 at 9:00 am

There’s a great scene in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, The Zero Clue, where Wolfe is interviewing a small time crook. Archie, Wolfe’s chronicler, records the following exchange:

“[…] We would hand-pick a hundred and no more, and each one would ante one C per week, which if I can add at all would make ten grand every sennight. That would – ”
“What?” Wolfe exploded. “Ten grand every what?”
“Meaning a week?”
“Where the deuce did you pick up that fine old word?”
“That’s not old. Some big wit started it around last summer.”
“Incredible. Go on.”

Sennight is an archaic term, deriving from Old English, and the scene where Wolfe discovers it being used in the New York underworld is short but striking (when I Googled to find the exact exchange, I found a lot of blog entries that open rather like I just did). Rex Stout was a master of the English language and liked to introduce strange or archaic words in his books, and the pleasure of discovering one and puzzling it out is one of many his readers experience. I learned “weltschmerz” from Archie Goodwin.

The interesting thing about writing a historical novel, even a fantasy-historical one like The Dead Isle, is the anachronisms that you run across — both forward (“That word wasn’t in use yet”) and backward (“Wow, we don’t use this word anymore”). In a recent chapter one of my readers, StGreyhounds, asked if “Okay” was actually in use at the time the book is set, in the late 19th century, and I honestly had to stop and scratch my head. Was it?

Right here is where we fall down the rabbit hole, by the way.

Fortunately for me there is the Oxford English Dictionary, which I can access through my day job. I went and looked it up and sure enough, “O.K.” (close enough for jazz and for me) was in use by 1839. I did go through and take out a few instances from the book, because it was mostly an American term, but that’s just the start of the story. It pinged me as interesting that O.K. was used by telegraph operators to signal “everything’s fine”, first because telegraph is part of the whole gestalt of antique “modern” technology that belongs to steampunk, and second because it sounded like a story in the making. So I did some digging.

O.K. is, according to the OED, most likely a shortened form of Orl Korrect or Oll Korrect. The OED dismisses claims that it derived from the Choctaw oke, French au quai, Scots English och aye, or West African o ke; Wikipedia is not so swift to judge, but I leave that to better minds than mine. What was more intriguing to me was that neither OED nor Wiki appear to have any information on where the hell Oll Korrect came from. There’s a stab at the idea that it was part of a Bostonian fad for mis-spelled words in the 1830s, but no backup citations. A New York Times article suggests that it’s a Dutch phrase, which I suppose is as good an explanation as any.

Most sources seem to  be in agreement that O.K. was popularized if not invented by Martin Van Buren’s run at the White House, where he was referred to in campaign media as “O.K.” for “Old Kinderhook”, Kinderhook being the town in the Hudson Valley he hailed from. (In case you were wondering, there is totally a Wikipedia list of Presidential Nicknames. I know.)

So, that’s one mystery not-actually-solved-but-at-least-debated, anyhow. Now: telegraph operators?

The reference comes from the OED: 1865 – W. H. Russell Atlantic Telegr. 61 – “The communication with shore continued to improve, and was, in the language of telegraphers, O.K.” At first I thought Atlantic Telegr. was a newspaper, because I am an idiot, but it turns out it’s a book on, you guessed it, the transatlantic telegraph cable. I found the book, thank you GoogleBooks, but the reference is an isolated one. (The book is actually pretty interesting reading for those of a Steampunk bent.) I thought it was a shame, because I’d like to learn more about telegraph slang; small slang languages like Polari are a fascination of mine for some reason I don’t fully understand.

Fortunately, not only did the telegraph offices have a slang language and a subculture, some enterprising benefactor of the future named LC Hall wrote an article about it in 1902 for McClure’s Magazine. In the great human spirit of “Anything you can do, I can do better” telegraph operators even had contests:

A great hall was filled one night with people, mostly telegraphers and their friends.  On the stage were a dozen men, a few tables upon which were sets of shining telegraph instruments, and a number of  pen writing machines of different patterns.  The occasion was a “fast sending tournament,” held to establish records in rapid transmission.

The entire article, from a story about a friendship developed by two telegraph operators to the way an earthquake silenced the wires in Charleston as if the city had died, is absolutely fascinating reading, especially when you mentally compare them to today’s stories about the internet. There’s even a section on “hog morse” which might as well be damnyouautocorrect for the fin de siècle set.

I did not, however, find any references to “O.K.” At this point, though, I’m far more fascinated by telegraph culture — so that’s okay.

And this is What I Learned From Writing A Historical Steampunk Fantasy, By Sam Starbuck, Age 32 1/2.


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