Allen Walker Read
Born(1906-06-02)June 2, 1906
Died(2002-10-16)October 16, 2002
EducationUniversity of Northern Iowa (B.A)

University of Iowa (M.A.)

Oxford University (Rhodes Scholarship)
Occupation(s)Etymologist, lexicographer

Allen Walker Read (June 2, 1906 – October 16, 2002)[1] was an American etymologist and lexicographer. Born in Minnesota, he spent much of his career as a professor at Columbia University in New York. Read's work Classic American Graffiti is well regarded in the study of latrinalia and obscenity. His etymological career included his discovery of the origin of the word "OK", a longtime puzzle, and his scholarly study of the history and use of the common English vulgarity "fuck."

Biography and career

Read was born in Winnebago, Minnesota.[2] His one sister, Mary Jo, became a professor of geography at Eastern Illinois University.[3] He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Northern Iowa (called Iowa State Teachers College at the time) in 1925, a master's degree from the University of Iowa in 1926, and studied at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar from 1928 to 1931. He was a repeated contributor to American Speech by 1931.

Read's 1934 article in American Speech, titled "An Obscenity Symbol", is a study of the word "fuck" from a sociological perspective. In 2014, Jesse Sheidlower, the president of the American Dialect Society, called it "the most important article" written about the term, noting that ironically, Read's 14-page essay avoided using the word directly, referring to it euphemistically instead.[4]

Classic American Graffiti

Read's first extended work, Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America: A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, was privately published at his own expense in Paris in 1935 since its description of bathroom graffiti was considered too racy for American publishers.[5][6] Even then, the printing was limited to 75 copies and contained a disclaimer that it should be "restricted to students of linguistics, folk-lore, abnormal psychology and allied branches of social science."[7] It was eventually published in the United States in 1977, under the title Classic American Graffiti, ISBN 0-916500-06-3, by Reinhold Aman's Maledicta Press.[8] The work was described as a classic "model study" of latrinalia that "deserves the attention of any serious student of American language" in a 1979 review, which noted that even then it remained hard to access and "excessively rare."[9] It contains some of the earliest documentation in English of words used by the homosexual community, although Read never recorded the word "gay", implying that the term was not used to mean homosexual during this time period.[10][11] The work also contained Read's concept of the inverted taboo, in which some people delight in vulgarity because of its illicit nature.[12][13][14]

Etymological career

From 1938 onwards, he worked intermittently on a dictionary of Britishisms, but was never able to complete it during his life.[15] During World War II, he did his service with the Military Intelligence Division working on an American Military Definition Dictionary and Military Phrase Books.[3] He was a chaired professor at Columbia University in New York City from 1945 until 1975.[2][15] In 1948, H.L. Mencken wrote that Read ''probably knows more about early Americanisms than anyone else on earth.''[15]

The origin of "OK", a common English phrase, had been considered one of the language's biggest etymological mysteries, with a number of competing theories.[16] Read unveiled the actual origin of the word in a series of articles published in American Speech between 1963 and 1964.[17] This achievement The Economist described as "the pinnacle of his career" to "envious fellow etymologists", but Read considered it just "an agreeable diversion from his main work."[16]

Read also successfully traced the origins of the words "dixie" and "podunk", and managed to attribute the first use of "the almighty dollar" to Washington Irving. He wrote the entry for "dictionary" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.[15] Read's career included studies of euphemisms, graffiti, slang, pig Latin, doubletalk, and adult baby talk.[15]

Read served as the head of the International Linguistic Association, and also as the President of the Semiotic Society of America in 1980.[15]

Personal life

He married Charlotte Schuchardt, director of the Institute of General Semantics, in 1953. They remained together until she died in July 2002.[18][15] He died in New York City in September 2002.[2][15] They had no children.[1]


  1. ^ a b Luther, Claudia (January 12, 2011). "Obituaries. ALLEN WALKER READ, 96, 'OK' ETYMOLOGIST". South Coast Today. Archived from the original on December 9, 2019. Retrieved July 3, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c The Times Archived 2008-10-13 at the Wayback Machine, November 8, 2002, obituary.
  3. ^ a b Beth, Mary; Jolley, Laura R. (February 2019). "Allen Walker Read Papers" (PDF). The State Historical Society of Missouri. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-11-04. Retrieved 26 November 2020.
  4. ^ Sheidlower, Jesse (2014-03-30). "Opinion | The Case for Profanity in Print". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2022-03-08. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
  5. ^ Major, Clarence (1979). "Classic American Graffiti: Lexical Evidence from Folk Epigraphy in Western North America, A Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary (review)". Dictionaries: Journal of the Dictionary Society of North America. 1 (1): 148–150. doi:10.1353/dic.1979.0016. ISSN 2160-5076. S2CID 162293035. Archived from the original on 2018-06-01. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  6. ^ Read, Allen Walker (1977). "Bibliographical Note". Classic American graffiti : lexical evidence from folk epigraphy in western North America : a glossarial study of the low element in the English vocabulary. Waukesha, Wis.: Maledicta. p. 28. ISBN 0-916500-06-3. OCLC 3523105. Archived from the original on 2022-02-27. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  7. ^ Kulick, Don (2003). "Language and Desire". In Holmes, Janet; Meyerhoff, Miriam (eds.). The handbook of language and gender. Malden, MA. p. 120. ISBN 1-4051-2320-6. OCLC 53366822. Archived from the original on 2022-02-27. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  8. ^ Allan, Keith (2020), Mullan, Kerry; Peeters, Bert; Sadow, Lauren (eds.), "The Semantics and Pragmatics of Three Potential Slurring Terms", Studies in Ethnopragmatics, Cultural Semantics, and Intercultural Communication, Singapore: Springer Singapore, pp. 163–183, doi:10.1007/978-981-32-9983-2_9, ISBN 978-981-329-982-5, S2CID 210439517, archived from the original on 2022-02-27, retrieved 2022-02-27
  9. ^ Brunvand, Jan Harold (1979). "Classic American Graffiti by Allen Walker Read (review)". Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature. 33 (4): 217. ISSN 1948-2833.
  10. ^ Kulick, Don (2000-10-21). "Gay and Lesbian Language". Annual Review of Anthropology. 29 (1): 243–285. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.29.1.243. ISSN 0084-6570. Archived from the original on 2021-07-15. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  11. ^ Displacing homophobia : gay male perspectives in literature and culture. Ronald R. Butters, John M. Clum, Michael Moon. Durham, N.C. 1989. ISBN 0-8223-0970-X. OCLC 20490067. Archived from the original on 2022-02-27. Retrieved 2022-02-27.((cite book)): CS1 maint: others (link)
  12. ^ Dynel, Marta (2012-05-29). "Swearing methodologically : the (im)politeness of expletives in anonymous commentaries on Youtube". Journal of English Studies. 10: 25–50. doi:10.18172/jes.179. ISSN 1695-4300. Archived from the original on 2022-02-23. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  13. ^ Hurlbut, Marilyn (1976). "Verbal Taboo in Shampoo". Journal of the University Film Association. 28 (3): 35–38. ISSN 0041-9311. JSTOR 20687332. Archived from the original on 2022-02-27. Retrieved 2022-02-27 – via JSTOR.
  14. ^ Andrews, Edna (1996). "Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming". American Speech. 71 (4): 389–404. doi:10.2307/455713. ISSN 0003-1283. JSTOR 455713. Archived from the original on 2022-02-11. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h Martin, Douglas (2002-10-18). "Allen Read, 96, the 'O.K.' Expert, Is Dead (Published 2002)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2020-11-06. Retrieved 2020-11-26.
  16. ^ a b "Allen Read". The Economist. 2002-10-24. ISSN 0013-0613. Archived from the original on 2018-02-21. Retrieved 2022-02-27.
  17. ^ "October 24, 2002 - Allen Walker Read / 'O.K.' - 2002-10-23". VOA. Archived from the original on 2020-11-23. Retrieved 2020-11-26.
  18. ^ Who Was Who in North American Name Study Archived 2012-04-15 at the Wayback Machine, American Name Society, accessed February 15, 2007.