Journalists quickly get used to seeing their work return to them one way or another, either in comments from friends and readers, pleasant or snarky, or, as is obviously becoming more and more common, in references and links to past articles posted in various online forums; I’ve been whacking away at what Hunter Thompson called this low trade for 30 years, and I’m not sure anything I’ve written has come back to me more regularly over more years than a simple email I typed up one afternoon in the late 1990s, in reply to editors at a University of Kentucky online fan publication.
Actually, I received two emails, as I recall, one shortly after the other, from the Kentucky editor and another from a Wildcats fan, asking essentially the same question: Why is the University of Kentucky known as “UK” while the University of Kansas prefers to call itself “KU”? I’d heard the question a number of times, especially from friends back East who, despite being extremely knowledgeable sports fans, still gratingly refer to our school as “UK.”
So, I typed up my response, written with absolutely zero research and zero authority, other than my own observations. Could be right, more than likely plenty wrong, but, with tonight’s KU-Kentucky game looming large and the issue again finding its way into my email inbox, here’s a quick summary of my first response from more than a decade ago:
Slightly more satisfying answer: Tradition. Plain and simple, no more complicated than that.
Quoting a journalist’s favorite source, myself:
KU essentially came to be the traditional shorthand reference to the University of Kansas sometime in the late 19th century. I’ve certainly seen it in archival documents that far back. My personal (unsubstantiated) hunch is that it simply was easier to make songs and rhymes with KU than UK; back then, every class, for instance, made up a class song. The newspapers ran regular poetry. There was lots of rhyming, singing, stuff like that going on, and for whatever reason, “good ol’ K. U.” (usually with periods and the space) caught on. And in any event, once the students, faculty and alumni reached the unofficial consensus on “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk, Go KU!” the matter was settled. I don’t think it has anything to do with the University of Kentucky’s use of UK.
There is also some disagreement about what the exact name of the school is, as written in Latin on the University seal. Some contend it says “Kansas University,” and therefore is the source of KU; others say it’s impossible to truly make that distinction in the translation. I know and respect scholars on both sides of the argument, and I don’t know Latin, so I leave it at: Maybe, maybe not.
Regardless of what it says on the great seal, “University of Kansas” is the official name of the University, it always has been the official name, and KU is the accepted shorthand reference, and origins of the shorthand reference would be anecdotal at best—except I can assure you it has nothing to do with Kentucky.
You are correct in pointing out the similar usage by MU, CU, NU and OU … Seems to be a typical usage by central-region state flagship universities. But again, the exact answer to “why” is probably unknowable.
I can tell you this question has bounced around for a very long time and I’ve never heard an authoritative answer any more specific than what I’ve shared here. Hope this helps.
Rock Chalk, Jayhawks.