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Does the Word “Okay” Belong in Period Dramas?

Updated on October 10, 2013
Can you imagine either of these two suddenly saying "Okay"?
Can you imagine either of these two suddenly saying "Okay"? | Source

I think the first time I was ever really bothered by hearing the word “okay” in a period drama was when I watched John Cusack’s The Raven. This is a completely fictional account of Edgar Allan Poe's death, and is therefore set in 1849. During the film, Poe’s romantic interest, Emily Hamilton (played by Alice Eve) is captured by a psychopath and buried alive. She starts to panic the moment she wakes up in her coffin. She screams and moves around as best she can. She then realizes she is not buried too deeply when she hears the voice of her captor threateningly telling her to “shut it”. Emily is stunned and quietly answers “Okay!”.

When I heard this, I was suddenly struck by just how inappropriate it is for the word “okay” to be used in a period drama. I can get over it in fantasy shows such as Merlin and Once Upon a Time - although it does seem rather like a sign of poor writing. But how can a high society woman, in a corset, in a fictional but otherwise believable account of life in the 19th century be saying “okay”?

The other one which really stuck in my head was when Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn said “Okay” during Season 2: Episode 9 of The Tudors. It is right before Anne is arrested. She is in her apartment, dancing with her ladies. She is beautiful; her long hair and gown are flowing as she directs the woman in the dance…and then all of the sudden she says “Okay!” and casually carries on with her instructions!

“Okay” is, without a doubt, a slang word. To this day, English teachers can justifiably tell their students that using “alright” is more appropriate than using “okay”. However, for decades, this word has very much been a part of the way we talk. But did people say it in past centuries?

The Origin of the Word “Okay”

Admittedly, I had to eat some crow when I looked up the history of the word “okay”. I was expecting to find some brief explanation about how it became modern slang, with a history of the word dating back maybe about a century before the present time. Instead, I found out that “okay” is a much older word than I expected.

Okay Corral?

One of the first things which comes to mind is Tombstone’s O.K. Corral, site of the famous gunfight from 1881. The O.K. on this building, however, does not have anything to do with the word “okay” or with its supposed origins. Instead, the O.K. of the corral stands for “Old Kindersley”, obviously a reference to the site’s owner or to an old company.

Nobody really knows just how old the word is. It is largely agreed that “okay” or “OK” started regularly being used sometime around 1839. At this time, American newspaper editor C.G. Greene purposely misspelled “all correct” as “oll korrect” as part of a long running joke in Boston’s Morning Post. Most history lessons, and for that matter, most dictionaries, will list this anecdote as the origin of the word “okay”. However, there is a multitude of other explanations, some dating back as far at the 10th century. None of these explanations is much clearer than the Oll Korrect story, and range from the ridiculous (the idea that OK developed from an ancient Greek spell against vermin) to the highly believable theory that the word was popularized, at least in modern times, by Scottish immigrants who would say “Och, aye” when responding that everything was peachy.

Portrait of Noah Webster by Samuel Morse
Portrait of Noah Webster by Samuel Morse | Source
Advertisement for the 1896 edition of Webster's Dictionary. The word "okay" was not included.
Advertisement for the 1896 edition of Webster's Dictionary. The word "okay" was not included. | Source

Despite how old the word actually is, for a long time “okay” was not considered worthy of being including in the dictionary. It may have been as common a word in the 19th century as it is today. However, it was branded a colloquialism or slang and therefore would not have been considered a proper word to be taught in schools or included in newspaper articles and novels. Noah Webster’s first dictionary was published in 1828 and was obviously excused from including “okay” on account of being 11 years older the Oll Korrect story. However, the word was not included in any of the other numerous editions ranging up through 1913. I currently do not have access to any other old editions of Webster’s Dictionary. But I am assuming the word was probably not included anytime before the 1934 edition, at the earliest. At this stage, “okay” would have be further popularized by Hollywood and may finally have been recognized as a legitimate word. “Okay” is now included in all dictionaries, although its definition still lists it as slang.

Does it belong in period dramas?

So, to get back to my original point: Should the word “okay” ever be spoken in period dramas? Technically, Yes. It is an old enough word that it was very likely spoken, and quite often too, in past centuries. However, the word does NOT belong in the two period dramas mentioned above, namely the Anne Boleyn and the Emily Hamilton situations.

Man, making a point, says "Okay". Woman, scoffing, thinks "Where were you brought up, peasant?"
Man, making a point, says "Okay". Woman, scoffing, thinks "Where were you brought up, peasant?" | Source

“Okay”, from its earliest origins to the present day, has always been a slang word. Therefore, it should only be included in period dramas if it is used in the context of slang or if it is spoken by a character who is poorly educated. Women of Anne Boleyn’s station or of the fictional Emily Hamilton’s education would never have said a word like “okay”. If this was actually printed in the script, the screenwriter should be shot.

But this leads to the main problem I have with this word being in period dramas: In both The Raven and The Tudors it is pretty obvious that the actresses were simply on a roll. They had probably been filming for quite awhile, most likely without a break, and the word just came out by accident because it is part of the vocabulary of modern British and American women. If this is the case, it is the fault of the director and the video editor that these little slip-ups were included in the finished projects. But whatever the cause, it is an error that is inexcusable because it could so easily have been avoided.

The Raven
The Raven
DVD of the 2012 film starring John Cusack

© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      6 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      This is an excellent piece of writing. Amazing in every aspect of writing.

      I loved every word--and the lay-out was superb.

      Voted up and all the choices because you deserve it.

      In my humble opinion, no, 'okay,' does not belong in any period piece.

      You have such a gift for writing. Just keep writing and good things are bound to happen to you.

      I cordially invite you to read one or two of my hubs, and be one of my followers.

      That would make my day.

      I am so honored to meet you.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      7 years ago from Essex, UK

      Interesting article, and I know what you mean about the sound of the word 'Okay'. It just doesn't sit well in period dramas. I feel the same way about films set in the ancient world and films involving foreign characters. It's a perennial problem for script writers and directors.

      In Roman epics, do the actors speak like modern people with modern phraseology (which sounds wrong but is at least understandable), or do they speak some kind of weird hybrid language which probably bears no relation to how they actually spoke, but which sounds more authentic because it's different to modern English?

      In WW2 films with German or French characters, should they speak English, should they speak English but with a funny accent ('Ve have vays of making you tok!'), or should they speak in a foreign language and have subtitles plastered across the screen?

      I guess everyone has their own preference but where it goes wrong is when a word, a phrase, or an accent jars and makes the audience lose their suspension of disbelief and return to reality. As 'okay' clearly has the capacity to do. Voted up. Alun.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Arizona

      alancaster149 - Thanks for reading! Agreed that it doesn't belong in pre-20th century stories

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Each to his own - that's got a translation in French as well, hasn't it. Sorry I misplaced Norbury, but who knows, the way our coast gets eaten away...

      Last Rose, this is a subject that could go on and on, like 'Friends', or 'The Waltons'. Everyone's got a theory about the 'OK' syndrome. It definitely doesn't fit with any kind of period drama before WWI, but I probably won't get the last word.

    • LastRoseofSummer2 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Arizona

      Twilight Lawns - There are so many different stories as to where "Okay" originated that there is no knowing which one is actually right. I elaborated on the Oll Korrect story simply because this was the explanation that is listed in my dictionary as well as one of the main stories I kept coming across in my other research.

      Thanks for reading and for commenting

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      7 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      alancaster149, I have to admit that Norbury-sur-Mer is a fabrication, originating in my deranged brain (is that possible?).

      Actually, the real Norbury is part of that great conurbation known as Croydon, Surrey.

      London, SW16 or CR0 something.

      Reading your "Okay, Yah!" which draws me very pleasantly back to the Sloane Rangers era., I had a friend who imagined that she could make a direct translation from Sloanespeak into what she imagined would be the French equivalent, and would calmly say, "D'accord, Oui!" at the drop of a chapeau.

      I have frequently been tempted to write a hub about her, but I am wary of litigation.

      By the way, Twilight Lawns plc, is a retirement home for Persons of Better Class, which is situated near the leafy little Surrey village of Norbury-sur-Mer.

      Okay, Yah?

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan R Lancaster 

      7 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Where's 'Norbury-sur-Mer' when it's all at home? It's a suburb of Lunnon (Southeast)!

      As to the 'Okay' business, as 'Twilight Lawns' points out, the expression comes from across the Pond, only I read it was some time in the early 20th Century to confirm a dispatch order was complete.

      In the 19th Century on either side of the Pond the equivalent expression would have been 'Very well', or in the case of a question, 'Is that fine with you?'

      Nowadays we have our Yuppies (young and upwardly progressing types) coming on with the green wellies and Burberry jackets with folded shotguns under their arms asking 'Okay yah?' and returning to their bivvies (bivouacs) in upwardly moving Balham or Clapham and calling them 'Ba'am' or 'Cla'am'.

      [Next consultation will be followed up by an invoice, OK yah?]

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      7 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      I thought I knew where this word originated, and that I had pinned it down recently when i was informer (Correctly? Incorrectly?) that it stemmed from lists published during the American Civil War in which, when there was "Good news" the published lists contained an 0k (Zero K) meaning "None Killed".

      But now I have to think that maybe this information was wrong.

      However, the question was: "Does the word Okay belong in period dramas?"

      Certainly not.

      It would be like Queen Victoria saying, "We are not amused, but whatevaaa!"

      or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark saying. "To be or not to be, but, Okay, Horatio, have it your way my old darling. All that crap dat are dreamt of in your philosophy, chum, is a load of doggy do do's! Okay? Nowah Amin?"

      Please note: "Nowah Amin" is London Street Talk for "Know what I mean?". Innit. (and if you have to have "Innit "explained, perhaps you have stepped out of a period drama yourself.

      (A Period Drama in which they spoked good English like they was learned proper. Okay?).


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