Tag Archives: United States

It’s alright and it’s definitely OK

3 Mar
Martin Van Buren (December 5, 1782—July 24, 18...

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The BBC recently ran a brilliant article about the history of the word ‘OK’, which, from rather hazy origins in the last century, has slipped unnoticed to become one of the world’s most used words.

The article even makes the point that languages, other than English, have adopted their own version of ‘OK’, such as the Native American Choctaw “Okeh”, meaning “it is so”, the Greek “Ola kala” meaning “all is right” or the Finnish “Oikea” – “correct”.

The author, Allan Metcalfe, who’s written a book on the history of OK, suggests that the near universal usage of this word might be because of the visual appeal of the combination of the round O and the straight K, or that it might be because the sounds ‘O’, ‘K’ and the following ‘ay’ are common to all languages.

More interestingly, he suggests that OK fills a gap in language – it’s a neutral form of agreement.  It allows you to concur without expressing any kind of opinion, as you might do if you said ‘good’ or ‘great’.

The earliest recorded usage of the word is American, appearing in a Boston paper in 1839, as a playful abbreviation of ‘All Correct’ – ‘oll korrect’.  There was a vogue for such comedy abbreviations at the time – something that we recognise now with things like “WTF” or “LMAO”.

OK might have languished as mere wrapping for fish and chips, but for a presidential candidate (and eventual President) Martin Van Buren, whose nickname of Old Kinderhook meant that OK got a proper leg-up into our language.

The usage of ‘OK’ then spiralled at great speed – and rapidly became a common part of parlance within only a matter of years.  And 170 years later, we’re using it more frequently than ever before.  I have to confess that I must use it several times a day, particularly when  sending texts or instant messages.

But the origins of OK are not without controversy – yet none of the other theories (derivation from the Scottish ‘Och Aye’, or the Choctaw ‘Okeh’) are as well documented as the Boston origin.

It’s amazing to me that a two-letter word, entering the language comparatively recently, could become as widely used as it is – and yet still have its origins so clouded.  It’s definitely an a-ok story.



On ‘stakeholders’

1 Mar
The Vampire

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I was writing something for work – and as with any corporate writing, the word ‘stakeholder’ crops up a lot.  This morning, as I was editing someone else’s writing, I instantly changed their ‘stake holder’ (two words) into ‘stakeholder’ (one word) – but then wondered to myself whether I was doing the right thing.

I also got to wondering just what the term means.  It brings up visions, to my mind at least, of vampire hunters, holding large stakes ready to slay a deadly foe.  But this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make sense in a work context as a stakeholder is someone who is vital to the success of your work.

Are stakeholders instead something to do with a ‘stake’ in the ground?  i.e. people who hold up a stake of the tent you’re building, making them vital to your project as without them the tent would collapse?  This was my primary theory as of 11am this morning.

But no, it turns out that a stakeholder is a gambling term – an independent person who holds the ‘stakes’ or bets while the wager is underway.

And for those who think it’s a modern piece of jargon, perhaps derived from America, it’s actually a British English term that we’ve been using for an incredible 300 years!

The earliest usage is indeed linked directly to gambling: Which will oblige Your Humble Servant Stake Holderappears in 1708.

Another 100 years or so passes before the word is found in the written record with the modern business meaning – someone with an interest in the success of your project.  See this Times entry from 1821: We have ourselves the opinions of respectable men, with whom we have no interest in common, beyond that which belongs to all good subjects of the same Government, and stakeholders in one system of liberty, property, laws, morals, and national prosperity.”

The word has continued with this usage until the modern day – and was particularly loved of New Labour, as we see in the usage by Will Hutton, in The Guardian:  Instead of the winner-take-all economy and polity, the aim should be a *stakeholder economy and polity in which all have an interest.”

So I shall write the word with a lot more reverence in future – but sadly, also with fewer images of vampire hunters.

Find out how posh your surname is …

19 Feb
Census taker visits a family living in a carav...

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When we got married, my husband and I chose a new surname.  He changed his name to it before our wedding, and then when I married him, I also took on the same name.

The reason for this was that we wanted to have the same name, and his surname with my first name made me sound like a porn star … As marriage represented a new phase in our life for both of us, we decided that we’d both move forward together and take a new name.

It was an interesting process trying to choose a new surname.  It’s effectively a rebranding exercise – how do you find something that’s distinctive without being strange, that people can spell, that means something positive, that has a similar linguistic heritage to your own names?

One of the best resources we used was the National Trust Names, which has now been rebranded ‘Great Britain Family Names Profiler‘.  This website is allows you to see where all the people with your surname were based in the 1888 census, and then compare the same name with the 1998 census.  You can see if names become more or less popular, see if there’s any migration within the UK, as well as access a wealth of socio-economic data about people with the same name as you.

There have to be at least 100 people with that name on the census for it to appear, and as the UK has become more diverse over the last century, we see a lot more names that have originated from other languages.  Names like Singh and Khan, for instance, are among the most common in the UK.  (The website promises there is going to be a worldwide version soon too – woo hoo!)

One of the most entertaining features of the site is you can actually find out how posh your name is.   If you punch in your name, you should initially see a map of the distribution of your surname in 1998, based on the census results.

If you look at the top, you can see a link for the ‘Map of 1881’, which will allow you to compare how people with your surname have spread (or contracted) in the last 100 years.

‘Frequency and ethnicity’ allows you to establish how many people have your name on the 1998 census, whether it’s grown or declined, and how common it is overall.  You can also see  the ethnic origin of all people with your surname in 1998; this is often really fascinating and shows you how diverse Britain now is.

Finally, my favourite part of the website is ‘Geographical location‘.  This link means you can see the most common postal area for your surname, not only in the UK, but also in Australia, New Zealand and the US.

But if you look to the bottom of the page, you’ll see a line for ‘Percentage of people with a higher-status name’.  This effectively tells you how posh your surname is – if only 10% of people have a ‘higher status name’ than you, you know you’re up there with Wills and Kate; make it 90%, and let ‘s just say you won’t be getting an invite to the wedding.

It’s great fun to compare just how posh your surname is to your partner’s and friends’ surnames – you never know what surprises it may throw up!


Splitting vs. spitting image

18 Feb
The snowy owl( Bubo scandiacus) is common acro...

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I’ve just finished ‘ Room’, the novel by Emma Donohue.  It’s definitely one of the best books I’ve read in a while – and had me in tears within 50 pages of starting it.

The book’s narrated by a five-year old boy, and in it, he uses the phrase that someone “is the spit” of him, meaning they looked identical.

I remember as a child of about ten or so getting roundly told off by the Snowy Owl at my Brownies (who was a bit of a cow, to be fair) for describing someone as a ‘spitting image’.  She was very insistent that the correct phrase was ‘splitting image’ – which, to give her credit, makes a bit more sense when you think about it.

I’d always thought that people starting using ‘spitting image’ or the noun ‘to be the spit of’ in the 1980s, based on the British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, that was popular at the time.  I also thought it was a British-only usage, so was surprised to see it crop up in a book set in America (albeit by an Irish writer).

But as it turns out, the only bit that I was right about was that ‘spitting image’ is indeed appears to be a corruption of ‘splitting image’.  Interestingly, the OED has a written record of the corruption at least two years before the original!

The OED records the first written usage of ‘splitting image’ 1880 – much later than I’d imagined.  It’s quoted in a book of Westmorland dialects, part of Cumbria, a district in north-west England.

However, the first corruption is recorded in 1878, again in a (different) book related to dialects from Cumbria – “Spitten picter” – a strong likeness.   ‘Spitting image’ is also first recorded in 1901 – He’s jes’ like his pa—the very spittin’ image of him!  from the delightfully-named Mrs. Wiggs of Cabbage Patch

The OED doesn’t yet record uses of the phrase ‘to be the spit of’, suggesting it hasn’t reached a sufficient critical mass of usage (or else just not the ears of the OED editors!).  Surely it’s now common enough to be considered for future inclusion – I’ll start a campaign now.

The changing language of US presidents

25 Jan
Seal of the President of the United States

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There’s a fabulous article on the BBC News website today, showing the changing popularity of certain words in the President’s State of the Union speech between 1790 and the present day.

The big winner is ‘we’; presidents have used it more and more in the 20th century to stress inclusivity.  The big loser is ‘public’, which has declined greatly in frequency.

One thing that did catch my eye was that ‘United States’ has quite clearly lost out to ‘America’.  Not only is the latter simpler and more catchy, but I guess (and I don’t know) that in the early dates, there was more of an emphasis on the union of all the different states into one country, something noone cares about anymore.

Check the article out for yourself; it’s fascinating!