Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has a post on some very early examples of what we think of as text-speak. He says that Allen Walker Read, in the course of his investigation of the origin of “OK,” proved that it “had emerged out of a kind of ‘abbreviation play’ that was popular in the U.S. in the 1830s — OK originally stood for ‘all correct’ intentionally misspelled as ‘oll korrect'”:

Even before KTJ of UTK (Katie Jay of Utica, or Uticay) came on the scene in the United States, England had LNG of Q (Ellen Gee of Kew) and MLE K of UL (Emily Kay of Ewell), who starred in two tragicomic verses published in 1828 in the London-based New Monthly Magazine. You can read “Dirge, to the Memory of Miss Ellen Gee of Kew” here, and “Elegy to the Memory of Miss Emily Kay (Cousin to Miss Ellen Gee of Kew)” here. These verses (the second one in particular) traveled far and wide, appearing in newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. They very well may have played a role in the American fad for silly abbreviations that gave rise to OK.

Zimmer reprints “Elegy to the Memory of Miss Emily Kay,” with a “decrypted and annotated rendering” which can be very useful (it’s not immediately obvious that “How soon so DR a creature may DK,/ And only leave behind XUVE!” means “How soon so dear a creature may decay,/ And only leave behind exuviae!”). And at the end he has a surprise:

But wait! Could this verse style have been an American invention after all? On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Joel S. Berson provides an example that uses many of the same types of abbreviation play, published in U.S. newspapers in 1813 — a full fifteen years before Miss LNG and Miss MLE K. The hunt continues…

The 1813 example begins “Come listen to my DT, all those that lovers B;/ Attune your hearts to PT, and read my LEG.”


  1. The book CDB! by William Steig carries things a bit further. I don’t actually see a connection between this wordplay and OK, though.

  2. Zimmer writes:

    That 1963 article was one of a series in which Read proved conclusively that OK had emerged out of a kind of “abbreviation play” that was popular in the U.S. in the 1830s

    I wonder about this “conclusively”. Maybe it is true for “OK”, but there must be analogic connections between that stuff and the much older practice of creating abbreviations (for many different reasons) that resembled pronounceable words. To give a wild and random selection, things like INRI, JHVH and QED, but also the “B is for Bee” of spelling primers.
    SPQR seems not to be an example, but it just struck me (anachronistically, I admit) as a bit surprising that the “Q” is in there, since “and” is a word that nowadays can be left out of acronyms. Do we know “conclusively” that there was no (jokey or not) “sepquero” utterance among overworked scribes ?
    These are wild musings, I’m not trying to push any thesis. I’m just wondering whether anyone else picks up on what I mean, without immediately throwing it back down.

  3. Actually, SPR (non-rhotically “espia”) would work even better than SPQR.

  4. I can’t push the date back at all, but I’ll share an example of Channel Islands English dialect prose with “txtspk”, printed in the newspaper “The Jersey Express” in 1887:
    “de odder day i pass inn de markat wan i go 2 gat mi weel 4 de bigg plow, an i C 5 of the botcher-shop shot up an i axe som of de botchers wat was standin wid der ans in der pockats, B cause day as notin 2 doo. i ax dem wat was de mater an day all say mi pore Maitr’ Flip u kant no wat a trubbel wee R inn, so manny shops in de town watt sells meet an so manny karts go all over de i land de peoples not ave 2 com 2 markat 4 wat day wont. i B leeve mr. Edetur dat day wil all leeve de markat by an by. i sad 2 dem i am varry sorry inn deed me 4 u, an i promise 2 dem 2 told u about at.”

  5. SPR (non-rhotically “espia”)
    The Rhomans were pretty rhotic when they weren’t administrating, think of all that Ars Amatoria rhot. I can’t imagine that they were into non-.
    i axe som of de botchers wat was standin wid der ans in der pockats, B cause day as notin 2 doo.
    Geraint, that reminds me strangely of some dialect in the Southern USA, supposedly of blacks and uneducated whites, as one finds in a 19th century American novel.

  6. @Grumbly Stu: Yes there’s a flavour of C19th novelistic eye-dialect in it.
    More of that sort of thing from Jersey here:
    I’m never quite sure what to make of that 19th century genre of dialect prose. I find it hard to imagine exactly what the readership made of it. I suppose it must have been enjoyed by an Anglicised generation whose parents spoke like that. The content of these pieces doesn’t seem like the sort of material that would appeal to foreigners mocking the yokels, as it were.
    Anyway, as I like pointing out to people, proto-txtspk is neither as recent nor as foreign as they might think.

  7. John Emerson says

    Well, Jersey is pretty foreign around here, however excellent their cows may be.

  8. I like it.

  9. C19th novelistic eye-dialect
    That’s a neat characterization (possibly new only to me) and would make an interesting post here. Hat, did you catch that ?!

  10. So Hat, have you reconsidered your endorsement of the Choctaw okeh theory?

  11. Good lord, I’d forgotten about that. That guy turned out to be a crank. I’d better add an addendum to the post.

  12. John Emerson says

    If you mess with etymology of “OK” you end up regretting it. It’s like cosmology and quantum theory, undecidable and indeterminate.

  13. “The abbreviation fad began in Boston in the summer of 1838 and spread to New York and New Orleans in 1839. The Boston newspapers began referring satirically to the local swells as OFM, “our first men,” and used expressions like NG, “no go,” GT, “gone to Texas,” and SP, “small potatoes.”
    Many of the abbreviated expressions were exaggerated misspellings, a stock in trade of the humorists of the day. One predecessor of OK was OW, “oll wright,” and there was also KY, “know yuse,” KG, “know go,” and NS, “nuff said.”
    Most of these acronyms enjoyed only a brief popularity. But OK was an exception, no doubt because it came in so handy. It first found its way into print in Boston in March of 1839 and soon became widespread among the hipper element.”

  14. I think we can forget the “okeh” theory. There is a long tradition in the printing trades of deliberate misspelling, on the lines of “those who know the rules can break the rules.”
    When I was a young reporter in the 1970s, it was still alive in the back shop of the newspaper where I worked–those guys were all old International Typographic Union workers, and they regularly used “TK” for “to come,” as in “pix TK,” and other insider abbreviationsl.

  15. We still used TK in the ’80s in the printing & design department I worked in.

  16. As I understand it, the misspellings were intended to distinguish language from metalanguage: writing “hed TK” was metalanguage indicating that the headline was yet to come, whereas writing “head to come” would indicate that those words should be inserted into the copy, a very different illocutionary force.
    Nowadays journalists use “hed” and “graf” and so on in copy because they think it’s professional slang.

  17. And therefore it is professional slang.

  18. and used expressions like NG, “no go,”
    My mother used NG to mean “no good”, never heard anyone else use it that way.
    In the 50’s and 60’s there were puzzle books that spelled out common phrases using symbols and numbers like “2” for “to” and “B4” for “before”. The only one I remember is (with underlining and HTML markup code to approximate the spacing and fonts):
    puzzle answer:
    a little miss under standing between two friends.

  19. John Cowan says

    Valentine Telegdi sent a note to Feynman and Gell-Mann saying “The F-G theory [of weak-force unification] is no F-G”. Then he rechecked his results and apologized two days later.

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