On Wednesday, President Obama retraced his presidential path through the deepest U.S. recession since the Great Depression and returned to Elkhart, Ind., where in 2009, he came to sell his economic stimulus package to the American public. This time, Obama gave a speech on the recession and economic recovery, spoke of some Americans' continued struggles and, in the process, leveled some critiques at the Republican Party and its likely presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
Trump and his party have succeeded in convincing some Americans that others were the cause of their problems, Obama said. It's a political philosophy, or maybe just a tactic, that requires linking residual and real economic suffering with big government, trade deals and all manner of social change, the president told the people who gathered in Elkhart to listen. Then, he was blunt. He called the speech an "intervention." This is what he said:
"If we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, if we fall for a bunch of 'okey-doke,' just because it sounds funny or the tweets are provocative, then we're not going to build on the progress we started. If we get cynical and just vote our fears, or if we don't vote at all, we won't build on the progress that we started."
Do you get the point? Do you know a little something about the origins of the term okay and, as such, find yourself a little confused by the president's use of the word "okey-doke?" Or, did you miss that portion of Obama's speech above and picked up the rather large context clues? Apparently, at least part of your answer to those questions may be shaped by whether or not you are a black American — as Obama describes himself — or have heard the term in informal conversations with African Americans.
To understand both the origins and meaning of the term okey-doke, The Fix has learned, it is necessary to first understand the rich political and distinctly American origins of the word okay, and why and how the meaning of okey-doke differs. And, there is, apparently, one book, one book only, written about the word okay. That's "OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," published in 2010. And Allan Metcalf is the mind behind it.
Metcalf is so intrigued by the term okay and its many forms that a portion of his book also explores the term okey-doke and its African American roots. In fact it was Metcalf, who is white, who pointed out to The Fix that this really is not the first time Obama has used that term.
According to Metcalf, on the pages of "The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," on Jan. 23, 2008, while addressing a largely black audience in Sumter, S.C., Obama also said this:
... The point is, part of what happens in Washington is folks will twist your words around, trying to pretend you said something you didn’t say, trying to pretend you didn’t say something you did. We know that game. But that’s the kind of politics that we’ve got to change. … So don’t be confused when you hear a whole bunch of this negative stuff. Those are the same old tricks. They’re trying to bamboozle you. It’s the same old okey-doke. Y’all know about okey-doke, right? It’s the same old stuff. It’s like if anybody gets one of these emails saying, “Obama is a Muslim.” I’ve been a member of the same church for almost 20 years, praying to Jesus, with my Bible. Don’t let people turn you around. Because they’re just making stuff up. That’s what they do. They try to bamboozle you. Hoodwink you. ...
Do you get the meaning of the term now?
If not, follow us through this little linguistic review.
In 1839, a Boston newspaper editor decided to include a personal joke, an abbreviated misspelling for the term "all correct," on the printed page. Apparently, in 19th century Boston, abbreviating "all correct" with "O.K." (as in oll korrect) passed for humor, Metcalf said.
"It must have been a rather unexciting time," he said.
People began to use the term in casual speech. Then, in the 1840 election, President Martin Van Buren, a native son of Kinderhook, N.Y., sometimes referred to as Old Kinderhook or the Old Knickerbock, was seeking reelection. Van Buren supporters formed the so-called "OK club," further spreading use of the term. Van Buren did not win. By the 1850s, OK had not only become a commonly used word, but lost its comical meaning. In fact, when technicians began laying and using the world's first transatlantic cable line and expanding the nation's railroads over long distances, official reports about functioning infrastructure, delivered messages and on-time trips made generous use of the clear and concise term "O.K." or "OK." People around the world adopted the term.
"OK" became the "email" of its time.
According to Metcalf, okay and its many derivations are so frequently used and widely understood and it is so similar to words in other languages, that many a person has wrongly claimed that the word is rooted in their culture, language or continent. It's been said that the word is Scottish, that it originated in ancient Greece 2,000 years ago, that it got its start in Africa and migrated to the United States with African slaves. None of this is exactly true, Metcalf said.
"It turned it into a powerhouse of a word. Really. Its brevity. Its clarity," Metcalf said. "I wrote that OK is America's greatest word. Really it's the world's greatest word. It is just so useful as you go though the day making plans, making arrangements, discussing and comparing things. It works even when people do not speak the same language. And it's an interesting word in that it also expresses a deeply American philosophy, pragmatism. In just two letters you can say something doesn't have to be perfect but if it's acceptable, we can get on with things. OK, we can carry on."
By the 1930s, Americans, mostly white Americans, in need of a joking way to agree to something or affirm it, began using the term "okey-dokey." In that sense OK, O.K., okay and even okey-dokey are kind of relentlessly positive, too. And, that's what makes the meaning and public use of the term okey-doke by the nation's first black president all the more interesting.
You see, the term, "okey-doke," meaning some sort of trick, game, scam, attempt to fool, shortchange, deceive or mislead, also came into use in the 1930s, principally among African Americans. And it obviously has a not-so-positive meaning. Okey-doke is the kind of thing you need to look out for, be aware of, against which you must keep up your guard. And, of course, in 1930s America, that, too, was a significant feature of the African American experience. And, given that Metcalf and others who study language say the term is still in widespread use among African Americans today, Fix readers can take from that what they will.
So. Got that? Okay. No okey-doke here. We're done.